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Frost, Robert 1874–1963
An American poet, Frost described poetry as "a little voyage of discovery." The setting for his poems is predominantly the rural landscapes of New England, his poetic language is the language of the common man. His work has often been criticized for its uneven quality, as well as its simplistic philosophy and form. However, Frost's best poems explore fundamental questions of existence, depicting with chilling matter-of-factness the loneliness of the individual confronted with an indifferent universe. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9.)
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Frost has been praised as a classical poet, but he is not classical in any sense which I can understand. Like many of his contemporaries, he is an Emersonian Romantic, although with certain mutings and modifications …, and he has labeled himself as such with a good deal of care. He is a poet of the minor theme, the casual approach, and the discreetly eccentric attitude. When a reader calls Frost a classical poet, he probably means that Frost strikes him as a "natural" poet, a poet who somehow resembles himself and his neighbors; but this is merely another way of saying that the reader feels a kinship to him and likes him easily. Classical literature is said to judge human experience with respect to the norm; but it does so with respect to the norm of what humanity ought to be, not with respect to the norm of what it happens to be in a particular place and time. The human average has never been admirable …, and that is why literature which glorifies the average is sentimental rather than classical.
Frost writes of rural subjects, and the American reader of our time has an affection for rural subjects which is partly the product of the Romantic sentimentalization of "nature," but which is partly also a nostalgic looking back to the rural life which predominated in this nation a generation or two ago; the rural life is somehow regarded as the truly American life. I have no objection to the poet's employing rural settings; but we should remember that it is the poet's business to evaluate human experience, and the rural setting is no more valuable for this purpose than any other or than no particular setting, and one could argue with some plausibility that an exclusive concentration on it may be limiting.
Frost early began his endeavor to make his style approximate as closely as possible the style of conversation, and this endeavor has added to his reputation: it has helped to make him seem "natural." But poetry is not conversation, and I see no reason why poetry should be called upon to imitate conversation. Conversation is the most careless and formless of human utterance; it is spontaneous and unrevised, and its vocabulary is commonly limited. Poetry is the most difficult form of human utterance; we revise poems carefully in order to make them more nearly perfect. The two forms of expression are extremes, they are not close to each other. (pp. 58-9)
Frost has said that Emerson is his favorite American poet, and he himself appears to be something of an Emersonian…. In Frost, [however,] we find a disciple without Emerson's religious conviction: Frost believes in the rightness of impulse, but does not discuss the pantheistic doctrine which would give authority to impulse; as a result of his belief in impulse, he is of necessity a relativist, but his relativism, apparently since it derives from no intense religious conviction, has resulted mainly in ill-natured eccentricity and in increasing melancholy. He is an Emersonian who has become sceptical and uncertain without having reformed; and the scepticism and uncertainty do not appear to have been so much the result of thought as the result of the impact upon his sensibility of conflicting notions of his own era—they appear to be the result of his having taken the easy way and having drifted with the various currents of his time. (pp. 60-1)
[Certain] poems throw more light on Frost as a whole, perhaps, than do any others, and they may serve as an introduction to his work. I have in mind especially three poems from Mountain Interval: the introductory piece entitled "The Road Not Taken," the post-scriptive piece entitled "The Sound of the Trees," and the lyrical narrative called "The Hill Wife."… These poems all have a single theme: the whimsical, accidental, and incomprehensible nature of the formative decision; and I should like to point out that if one takes this view of the formative decision, one has cut oneself off from understanding most of human experience, for in these terms there is nothing to be understood—one can write of human experience with sentimental approval or with sentimental melancholy, but with little else.
"The Road Not Taken," for example, is the poem of a man whom one might fairly call a spiritual drifter; and a spiritual drifter is unlikely to have either the intelligence or the energy to become a major poet. Yet the poem has definite virtues, and these should not be overlooked. In the first place, spiritual drifters exist, they are real; and although their decisions may not be comprehensible, their predicament is comprehensible. The poem renders the experience of such a person, and renders the uncertain melancholy of his plight. Had Frost been a more intelligent man, he might have seen that the plight of the spiritual drifter was not inevitable, he might have judged it in the light of a more comprehensive wisdom. Had he done this, he might have written a greater poem. But his poem is good as far as it goes; the trouble is that it does not go far enough, it is incomplete, and it puts on the reader a burden of critical intelligence which ought to be borne by the poet. (p. 61)
["The Sound of the Trees"] has the same quality of uncertainty and incomprehension as "The Road Not Taken"; it is written with about the same degree of success, with about the same charm, and with about the same quality of vague melancholy. In considering either of these poems, especially if one compares them even to minor works by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masters, one will observe not only the limitations of intelligence which I have mentioned, but a quality, slight though it may be, of imprecision in the rendering of the detail and of the total attitude, which is the result of the limitations…. [Frost] is mistaking whimsical impulse for moral choice, and the blunder obscures his understanding and even leaves his mood uncertain with regard to the value of the whole business. He is vaguely afraid that he may be neither wrong nor right. (p. 63)
["The Hill Wife"] has an eerie quality, like that of dream or of neurosis, but it has little else…. And one might mention also the poem from A Witness Tree entitled "A Serious Step Lightly Taken": the serious step in question is merely the buying of a farm; but the title is characteristic, and the title implies approval and not disapproval—it implies that serious steps ought to be lightly taken. But if serious steps are to be lightly taken, then poetry, at least, is impoverished, and the poet can have very little to say. Most of the world's great poetry has had to do with serious steps seriously taken, and when the seriousness goes from life, it goes from the poetry. (pp. 63-4)
[In "The Bear" Frost] is satirizing the intelligent man from the point of view of the unintelligent; and the more often one reads the poem, the more obvious this fact becomes, and the more trivial the poem appears. (pp. 64-5)
The idea in ["To a Thinker"] is the same as that in "The Bear," but is even more plainly stated; we have the commonplace Romantic distrust of reason and trust in instinct…. The poem is badly written, but one couplet is momentarily amusing:
I own I never really warmed
To the reformer or reformed.
Yet when we examine it more carefully, there is something almost contemptible about it. There are, of course, reformers and reformers, and many of them have been ludicrous or worse. Frost is invoking the image of the soap-box politician or the street-corner preacher in order to discredit reason. But the word reform can be best evaluated if one separates the syllables for a moment. To reform means to re-form. And the progress of civilization has been a process of re-forming human nature…. Frost endeavors to gain his point by sleight-of-hand; he endeavors to obscure the difference between St. Thomas Aquinas and Pussyfoot Johnson. (p. 65)
["The Egg and the Machine" presents] several familiar Romantic attitudes: resentment at being unable to achieve the absolute privacy which Frost names as a primary desideratum in "Build Soil," the sentimental regard for the untouched wilderness (the untouched wilderness would provide absolute privacy for the unique Romantic), and the sentimental hatred for the machine…. Frost's real objection to the machine, I suspect, is its social nature; it requires and facilitates cooperation, and Frost is unwilling to recognize its respectability mainly for this reason.
There have been other literary works dealing with resentment at the machine and the changes it has introduced; the resentment I believe to be foolish, but in certain settings it may have a tragic if barbarous dignity…. The trouble is again that the symbols will not stand inspection…. (pp. 68-9)
The carefully flippant tone [of "A Mask of Reason"] … belongs to the tradition of Romantic irony which … is used to make the ideas seem trivial. The ideas and the tone together express the Romantic ennui or disillusionment which is born of spiritual laziness, the laziness which is justified by the Romantic doctrine that one can best apprehend the truth by intuition and without labor….
There is no understanding of good and evil in themselves, of the metaphysical questions involved. Good is submission to an anthropomorphic and undignified God and is made to seem preposterous. Evil is made equally preposterous, and for similar reasons. The poem resembles "The Bear," but is on a larger scale. If these concepts of good and evil were the only concepts available, or if they were the best concepts available, then Frost's satire would be justified. But they are not, and in reading the poem one can only be appalled at Frost's willful ignorance, at his smug stupidity. (p. 72)
[Frost] is a poet who holds the following views: he believes that impulse is trustworthy and reason contemptible, that formative decisions should be made casually and passively, that the individual should retreat from cooperative action with his kind should retreat not to engage in intellectual activity but in order to protect himself from the contamination of outside influence, that affairs manage themselves for the best if left alone, that ideas of good and evil need not be taken very seriously. These views are sure to be a hindrance to self-development, and they effectually cut Frost off from any really profound understanding of human experience, whether political, moral, metaphysical, or religious. The result in the didactic poems is the perversity and incoherence of thought; the result in the narrative poems is either slightness of subject or a flat and uninteresting apprehension of the subject; the result in the symbolic lyrics is a disturbing dislocation between the descriptive surface, which is frequently lovely, and the ultimate meaning, which is usually sentimental and unacceptable. The result in nearly all the poems is a measure of carelessness in the style, sometimes small and sometimes great, but usually evident: the conversational manner will naturally suit a poet who takes all experience so casually, and it is only natural that the conversational manner should often become very conversational indeed. (p. 75)
The great poet judges the tragic subject completely, that is, rationally and emotionally…. But Frost advises us to turn away from serious topics, and for the greater part he confines himself to minor topics. The major topics impinge upon his personal experience, however, for after all they are unavoidable; but his treatment of them is usually whimsical, sentimental, and evasive; and in his later years his poetry is more and more pervaded by an obscure melancholy which he can neither control nor understand.
Yet Frost has a genuine gift for writing,… and this gift emerges more clearly in his later work than in his earlier, though still hesitantly and momentarily. The view of human nature which we have seen Frost to hold is one that must lead of necessity to a feeling that the individual man is small, lost, and unimportant in the midst of a vast and changing universe…. The nostalgic love for the chaotic and the dream-like, which Frost inherits from the Romantic tradition, along with an habitual but unreasoned hesitancy or fear, which is the heritage of the earlier New England, keeps Frost looking two ways, unable to move decisively in either direction. He is neither a truly vigorous Romantic … nor a truly reactionary Classicist…. He cannot decide whether to go or to stay, and the result is uncertainty and increasing melancholy…. [He] puts on the reader a burden of critical intelligence which ought to have been borne more fully by the poet; and if the reader is not capable of the necessary intelligence, the poem is likely to draw him into a similar state of mind. (pp. 76-7)
"Acquainted with the Night" … seems to me one of the two or three best poems that Frost has written. Superficially, the poem deals with the feeling of loneliness which one has when walking late at night in a strange city; but symbolically it deals with the poet's loneliness in a strange and obscure world, and the clock which tells him that the time is neither wrong nor right is a symbol of the relativism which causes his melancholy. The understanding of his predicament appears to be greater in this poem than in most of the others; he knows, at least, that it is a predicament and realizes the state of mind to which it has brought him. In the seventh volume, A Witness Tree, there is an even more impressive piece entitled "The Most of It." This poem represents a momentary insight into the vast and brute indifference of nature, the nature toward which Frost has cherished so sentimental a feeling through so many poems…. [The] style combines descriptive precision with great concentration of meaning and at the same time is wholly free from decoration, ineptitude, and other irrelevancy. The poem gives one some idea of how great a poet Frost might conceivably have been, had he been willing to use his mind instead of letting it wither. In this poem especially, and to some extent in "Acquainted with the Night," the poet confronts his condition fairly and sees it for what it is, but the insight is momentary: he neither proceeds from this point to further understanding nor even manages to retain the realization that he has achieved. (pp. 78-9)
["The Vindictives"] is probably the only poem in Frost in which one can find anything resembling heroic action; the poem is motivated by a simple and honest hatred of brutality and injustice so obvious that they cannot be overlooked. The hatred in question, however, can be justified only by certain ideas, the ideas of Christian and classical philosophy, which, although they are a part of Frost's background and influence him to this extent, he has during all of his career neglected or explicitly maligned. The poem is a little loose in construction and is occasionally careless in style; but it has an honesty and a controlled violence which make it very impressive…. "Come In" is a memorable lyric, but perhaps it contains too much of Frost's professional and somewhat sentimental charm. (pp. 79-80)
Frost is at his worst in didactic writing, in spite of his fondness for it: his ideas are impossible and his style is exceptionally shoddy. Furthermore, although Frost is frequently very skillful in the handling of short rhymed forms, he is extremely inept in managing blank verse; in blank verse his theory of conversational style shows itself at its worst—the rhythms are undistinguished and are repetitious to the point of deadly monotony. But it is in these poems that Frost states his ideas most unmistakably, and it is necessary to understand the ideas to form an estimate of him at all. He is at his best, as regards style, in the short rhymed lyric, but his short lyrics are less explicit in stating their themes, and unless one comes to them with a clear concept of Frost's principal themes one may overlook the themes or mistake them. Frost is at his best in such poems as "The Most of It" and "Acquainted with the Night," in which he seems to be more or less aware of the untenability of his own position and to face his difficulty, or as "The Vindictives," in which as the result of a fortunate accident of some kind he is able simply to ignore his usual themes and write as if he had never heard of them. The bulk of his really memorable work, however, is to be found among the symbolic lyrics, of which "The Last Mowing" and "Spring Pools" are excellent examples, lyrics in which the descriptive element is beautifully handled, in which the feeling is communicated with a sufficient degree of success to make them unforgettable but with so great a degree of imprecision as to make them curiously unsatisfactory. For the feeling does not arise merely from the contemplation of the natural objects described: if it did so, it would be too strong and too mysteriously elusive for its origins; the feeling arises mainly from the concepts of which the natural objects are the symbolic vehicles, and those concepts … are unacceptable, and when one tries to project them clearly into terms of human action are unimaginable. Frost's instinctualism, his nostalgia for dream and chaos, are merely the symptoms of sentimental obscurantism when, as in Frost's work, they are dealt with lightly and whimsically, but if taken seriously, as in the work of Crane and Pound, they may lead to more serious difficulties. They do not lead toward intelligence, no matter how far the individual devotee may travel in their company; they lead away from intelligence. They lead away from the true comprehension of human experience which makes for great, or even for successful, poetry. The element of the unimaginable, and hence of the imprecise, which lurks in the theme of "The Last Mowing" will make it forever, and in spite of its real and extraordinary virtues, a very imperfectly successful poem…. (p. 81)
He is in no sense a great poet, but he is at times a distinguished and valuable poet. In order to evaluate his work and profit by it, however, we must understand him far better than he understands himself, and this fact indicates a very serious weakness in his talent. If we do not so understand him, his poetry is bound to reinforce some of the most dangerous tendencies of our time; his weakness is commonly mistaken for wisdom, his vague and sentimental feeling for profound emotion, as his reputation and the public honors accorded him plainly testify. He is the nearest thing we have to a poet laureate, a national poet; and this fact is evidence of the community of thought and feeling between Frost and a very large part of the American literary public. The principles which have saved some part of Frost's talent, the principles of Greek and Christian thought, are principles which are seldom openly defended and of which the implications and ramifications are understood by relatively few of our contemporaries, by Frost least of all: they operate upon Frost at a distance, through social inheritance, and he has done his best to adopt principles which are opposed to them. The principles which have hampered Frost's development, the principles of Emersonian and Thoreauistic Romanticism, are the principles which he has openly espoused, and they are widespread in our culture. Until we understand these last and the dangers inherent in them and so abandon them in favor of better, we are unlikely to produce many poets greater than Frost, although a few poets may have intelligence enough to work clear of such influences; and we are likely to deteriorate more or less rapidly both as individuals and as a nation. (p. 82)
Yvor Winters, "Robert Frost: Or, the Spiritual Drifter as Poet," in his The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises (© 1957 by Yvor Winters; reprinted by permission of The Swallow Press, Chicago), Alan Swallow, 1957 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by James M. Cox, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 58-82).
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The casual reader of Frost's poetry is likely to think of Frost as a nature poet in the tradition of Wordsworth. In a sense, nature is his subject, but to Frost it is never an impulse from a vernal wood. His best poetry is concerned with the drama of man in nature, whereas Wordsworth is generally best when emotionally displaying the panorama of the natural world. "I guess I'm not a nature poet," Frost said … in the fall of 1952. "I have only written two poems without a human being in them." (p. 138)
[We] may recall the epitaph Frost proposes for himself in "The Lesson for Today": "I had a lover's quarrel with the world." This lover's quarrel is Frost's poetic subject, and throughout his poetry there are evidences of this view of man's existence in the natural world. His attitude toward nature is one of armed and amicable truce and mutual respect interspersed with crossings of the boundaries separating the two principles, individual man and forces of the world. But boundaries are insisted upon…. [Even in moments of affinity, or "favor,"] we shall always find the barriers which cannot be crossed…. Man is never completely certain that the earth, the natural world, returns his love.
From the publication of A Boy's Will down to the present time Frost has indicated a realization that nature, natura naturata, not only will, but sometimes seems intended to, hurt those who love it. The immediate natural world even seems to be moving toward chaos, intending to take man along with it if he isn't careful. But man has an advantage…. To sustain such injuries as nature inflicts "It's well to have all kinds of feeling, for it's all kinds of a world." And Frost expresses his all kinds of feeling toward the natural world…. [At] times he writes of the natural world in a cavalier fashion which Wordsworth would consider heretical. "You know Orion always comes up sideways," he says in "The Star-Splitter," and he pokes fun at the seasons in "Two Tramps in Mud Time." It is no spirit of nature which sends Frost's rain or wind; he never sees in the natural world the pervading spirit which Wordsworth saw…. Frost makes his attitude toward nature clear when he says in "New Hampshire" that "I wouldn't be a prude afraid of nature," and again rather flatly, "Nothing not built with hands of course is sacred."
Frost at times speaks directly to objects in nature, as Wordsworth did. But what is high seriousness in Wordsworth is fancy or humor in Frost. Frost goes on at length in a Polonius-to-Laertes speech to his orchard, which he is leaving for the winter. Watch out for the rabbits and deer and grouse; they will eat you. And if the sun gets too hot before the proper season, you won't be bearing next summer. The final word is "Goodby and Keep Cold."… [Even in] instances of direct address,… we never suppose that Frost feels the kind of brotherhood for natural objects that Wordsworth expresses through much of his poetry. Always, to Frost, man differs essentially from other features and objects…. [There] is motion of natural objects and not emotion, human simile but not human feeling. In "A Considerable Speck" Frost says, after examining the microscopic creature, "Plainly with an intelligence I dealt." And in "Departmental" he seems to be interpreting the ants in human terms. But we make a mistake if we suppose that he would ascribe mind to the "microscopic item" in the first poem or human behavior to the actions of the ants in the second. The truth is that in each of these poems Frost is preparing the way obliquely for direct statement. In "A Considerable Speck" we have the final "No one can know how glad I am to find/On any sheet the least display of mind." And "Departmental" ends with the comment on the ants, "How thoroughly departmental." In the more direct poem, "The Bear," we find "The world has room to make a bear feel free;/The universe seems cramped to you and me." Whenever Frost talks directly to or directly of natural objects or creatures, we feel that he is really looking at man out of the corner of his eye and speaking to him out of the corner of his mouth. In all these poems Frost is describing the animal and vegetable natures in man, not reading man's nature into the animal and vegetable worlds, as Wordsworth was inclined to do.
If Frost feels, as he seems to, that the natural world is impersonal, unfeeling, and at best animal creation, what does he think of its creator? In his early poetry he, like the people he refers to in "The Strong Are Saying Nothing," holds his silence. He does not choose to make any sweeping statements about God any more than he does about nature or man. This has occasioned the belief among some critics that Frost is at best agnostic. (pp. 138-41)
Frost's hesitancy in speaking dogmatically on the subject of the supernatural is due more to his acceptance of man's limitations and the acceptance of mystery in existence than to agnosticism…. He is quite ready to believe that which is appealing if it is also reasonable. Then he will express opinion. At the same time he is not willing to discard completely the appealing if it fails to be reasonable, knowing the fallibility of reason. He rather reserves judgment. Experience comes early, understanding later.
In his later years Frost, feeling more sure of what he thought was true, has spoken more freely of his views of God, as of man and the natural world. An indication of his broadening scope appeared in his book A Further Range, published in 1936, and finally, he has come to devote two of his latest works, A Masque of Reason (1945) and A Masque of Mercy (1947), to the question of man's relation to God. In A Masque of Reason Frost attempts to justify God's ways to man, which justification is that none is necessary. In this work Frost presents God in a rather familiar fashion, and this presentation of a somewhat undignified God has occasioned difficulty for many readers. (pp. 141-42)
But Frost's presentation of a cavalier God is a deliberate device which points up the theme of the masque…. In this picture of God given in A Masque of Reason he is showing us not lack of reason or justice in God, but rather man's stubbornness and lack of understanding. It is like man, especially in our day, to see God "pitching throne with a ply-wood chair." It is like man to exclaim with Job's wife, "It's God. I'd know him by Blake's picture anywhere." As it has been the human error to read man into nature, so is it the human error to read man into God: and Frost's poem, satirical in its shrewd observation on this human fallibility, is concerned with this problem. Is man's reason sufficient to overcome the wall between himself and God? Job and Job's wife are after a rational explanation of man's predicament which will clarify everything and bridge the gap between the finite mind and the infinite. The theme of the poem, then, is that understanding is dependent not only upon reason, but upon faith as well, a faith which helps the finite mind accept the mystery its reason will not completely explain. (pp. 142-43)
To Frost, the mindless world, despite its laws and patterns of cause and effect, lacks completeness. "There Are Roughly Zones," the title of a poem says, but understanding man is created so that he may try to make the world complete. Man's hands and mind bring order to himself to the world around him. Having all kinds of feelings for this all kinds of a world, he is able to bring order to the natural world "by making a garden and building a wall. That garden is art." And the man who erects the wall and makes the garden is in the world for that purpose, not that he may expect to bring permanent order but that he may work out his own salvation. Frost's consistency in this view from early to latest publication is shown by the two masques and by a poem from his first publication, A Boy's Will. "The Trial by Existence," which appeared in A Boy's Will, suggests that it is futile to attempt a complete explanation of why there are so many difficulties to prevent man's taking in and building his garden in the world. Man's real virtue, it argues, is to dare, to seek to build the wall which allows the garden to flourish for a time. Frost concludes that it is not important in the final reckoning whether or not one has actually succeeded in erecting a great or small wall or in raising a great or small garden; man is not measured by his works. (p. 143)
Man, like Job, continually repeats, "The artist in me cries out for design," and design man tries to discover. The barrier between creator and created is maintained. God will not let man see completely into the life of things. To this barrier are added the limitations imposed on man by his reason, or mind, and his desire, or heart. Yet reason and desire arouse the complementary faith which helps man accept his situation and grow from that point of acceptance. For here is true understanding in man, the recognition through reason, and acceptance through faith, of man's limitations and of the belief in God as "that which man is sure cares, and will save him, no matter how many times or how completely he has failed," as Frost said in 1916.
Frost considers this would be a pretty desperate and meaningless situation but for man's own ability to erect and destroy barriers…. This concern with barriers is the predominant theme in Frost's poetry. The barriers fall into several categories. First of all there is the great natural barrier, the void between man and the stars, a barrier which man continually, and sometimes foolishly, tries to bridge in his attempt to escape his limited haunt. The very stars, because of their remoteness, reduce man if he confuses distance and size with his own nature. (p. 145)
But the remoteness of the stars is also something which man may lean his mind on and be stayed. What is more disturbing to man than the barrier of space is the barrier between man and the immediate natural world, for it is in this realm of desert places that most of man's "gardening" takes place. This is where the "breathless swing between subject matter and form" becomes most apparent. And it is the struggle in this sphere which reveals what men are. (pp. 145-46)
Wordsworth in his early poetry tended to deny all barriers in his effort to become one with the great moving spirit of things, the soul of the world. He wanted to achieve the "abstract high singular" that Job's wife disparages in Frost's masque, to concern himself with the general idea rather than with the physical world. His approach was transcendental in that he denied the existence of barriers. For Frost there can be no such simplification of the problem of spirit and matter. Despite the necessity of maintaining one's garden against nature and of advancing it, there are certain limits which man cannot overstep, and one of them is the nature of physical existence. Frost has made no Platonic crosscuts to separate form and matter as Wordsworth did between 1798 and 1805. Existence is form plus matter to Frost, and any conflict in the world is conflict between such existences—form-and-matter man against form-and-matter world.
There is a fourth category of barriers in Frost's poetry—those between man and man. To Frost these barriers serve as framework for mutual understanding and respect. It is because of barriers that we understand each other, and, far from striving to tear them down as is the modern tendency, Frost insists on recognizing them. He even builds them wherever they seem necessary. The conflict caused by friction of personal barriers, "human nature in peace and war," is the subject of his most dramatic poetry. (pp. 146-47)
The reader might suppose from ["Mending Wall"] that Frost does not particularly hold with the need for fences, but note that it is the narrator who "lets his neighbor know" when time comes to do the work. The narrator questions the necessity of the wall in an effort to make the neighbor think and come out of the darkness of mind he is walking in. Both men know that good fences make good neighbors, but only one of them knows why or that the wall is more than a barrier between neighbors. Something in the world doesn't like a wall between a man and the world or between a man and his neighbor. Something wants all walls down so that individual identity may be destroyed. The wise person knows that a wall is a point of reference, a touchstone of sanity, and that it must be not only maintained but respected as well. (p. 147)
Man's tendency, once he has brought what he understands as form to the semichaos of his world, is to try also to impose the form he understands on the mind of his fellow-men—to insist that they see as he sees. Since each man is an individual intended to discover his individuality by revealing or restoring order through his peculiar art—whether that art be the splitting of birch logs, the making of ax-helves, or the writing of poems about these activities—one thing he must remember: each man reveals form which is indwelling in the material with which he works. There are roughly zones which limit man's gardening, his restoration of order in his own image. The wood which the ax-helve is made from has its grain, and the artist reveals form within the limitations of that grain. If he does his job well, the ax-helve will bend in use without breaking. All the helve-maker may boast of is his ability to reveal the form he has discovered in a particular piece of wood; his understanding of the form and his dexterity in revealing it mark his accomplishment. But when man imposes what he thinks should be the form of an ax-helve on a piece of wood whose grain will not allow the form, the first solid whack will split the finished helve. By showing the difference between a good and a bad helve, the French Canadian in "The Ax-Helve" argues against one man's imposing what he finds himself to be upon another man. The Canadian, it finally appears, is arguing that his children ought not to be forced to go to public schools where they will have themselves ground down to a form which is not in their nature.
Frost's view of man's nature, then, is consistent throughout his poetry. Each man is, in a sense, a stranger in this world, and so he remains. His is not to question why he is alone or why the world seems to be against him. He is to begin the breathless opening and closing of the mind, the hand, the heart, the eye upon the world, growing as he does so. As he grows he understands himself more, and as he understands himself he also understands more of the world and of his fehlows. With understanding comes love which makes him respect the chaos of the world with which he is in conflict, the material with which he works. The same love makes him respect and accept differences between men also. He respects others' individual differences and expects that others will respect his. And he knows that those differences are not to be overcome by the "tenderer-than-thou//Collectivistic regimenting love/With which the modern world is being swept" ("A Considerable Speck"). That would be to reduce man to a numerical and animal problem, to make him no more than the other creatures who share the world of nature with him…. Scientific man has made so bold as to demonstrate the infallibility of natural laws and then has proceeded to measure himself against them. As long as there was man's fallibility, as long as he could bow to natural law, there was some distinction in being man. (pp. 148-49)
In arguing man's distinction, Frost will not go to the two extremes offered by the philosophy of Plato on the one hand or the science of Democritus on the other. He will not accept pure spirit or idea as an explanation of man and a way out of the universe, nor will he accept the scientist's materialism measured with microscope and telescope as an alternate. Unhappy man tries both like a bear in a cage [in "The Bear"]:
He sits back on his fundamental butt
With lifted snout and eyes (if any) shut,
(He almost looks religious but he's not),
And back and forth he sways from cheek to cheek,
At one extreme agreeing with one Greek,
At the other agreeing with another Greek.
Once more [in "A Masque of Mercy"] Frost affirms that what is most important is the courage and not the accomplishment, the attempting and not successful completion…. St. Paul, the spirit of the New Testament, finally convinces Keeper that man is saved only by God's mercy, which man receives for having labored under injustice, his inability to overcome completely the barriers imposed upon him and the temporal nature of those barriers which man himself may erect. This is the only way to man's salvation, for if he had not labored thus his limitations would not allow that salvation. To Frost, God is still "that which man is sure cares, and will save him, no matter how many times or how completely he has failed."… Justice, Frost says, is only to the deserving, but mercy is for the undeserving. And those who demand justice because of the limitations imposed upon them will receive justice; those who with courage in the heart move toward understanding through faith and reason may expect God's mercy. (p. 150)
Marion Montgomery, "Robert Frost and His Use of Barriers: Man vs. Nature Toward God," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1958 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Summer, 1958 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by James M. Cox, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 138-50).
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What one finds upon reading [Frost's] Collected Poems is a relatively small number of first-rate pieces and a much larger number of unsuccessful ones. I don't mean the failures are "bad poems"; a few are, but scores and scores of them are poems that almost make it—almost but not quite. Usually they contain fine descriptions, pointed imagery, apt and characteristic language; but then at some point they turn talky, insistent, too literal, as if Frost were trying to coerce the meaning from his own poetic materials. And in fact I think this is exactly what he was trying to do. Call it vanity, arrogance, or whatever: Frost came to distrust his own imagination, and believed he could make his poems do and say what he wanted them to do and say. His best poems, nearly all of them from his first two or three books, were poems in which meaning and feeling had come together spontaneously in their own figures and objects. They were esthetically functional creations in the fullest sense. Frost saw that this had happened, and presumably he wanted to make it keep happening, but he ended by coercing his poems in formulaic and predictable ways. He ended not with poems but with editorials. (pp. 37-8)
["Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"] is not Frost's best poem…. But it is a good poem, to my mind quite genuine, and its meanings and feelings, larger than any stated in the poem, do emerge indirectly but unmistakably from the arrangements of images, rhythms, sounds, and syntax; we all know this, and Frost knew it too. The story is told that he wrote the poem at dawn in a state of near-exhaustion, after working all night on a longer poem that wasn't going well. He wrote it easily and quickly. And it turned out to say more than he knew he was saying, which is just the experience that all of us who write poems recognize and long for. Frost longed for it too. He longed to repeat it. But his longing drove him to attempt the coercion of the experience by means of contrivance and conscious control. (p. 38)
I am certain that "Stopping by Woods" sprang from an actual experience of stopping by a woods, while ["For Once, Then, Something"] was entirely a studio performance with only a consciously contrived connection to any experience, probably a remote experience, of looking down a well…. [My] feeling is distinct and forcible. Perhaps in part it comes from the exact hendecasyllables, which are uncharacteristic of Frost and which usually convey a feeling of artifice in English. Perhaps also the well metaphor is simply too pat, too sentimental. But the poem itself reveals more, its strongest part is the opening sentence, really quite a good one, the syntax and sound patterns cast tellingly against the basic meter; which leads me to suspect that the poem's real, though hidden, occasion lay in those "others"—I wonder who they were?—who taunted Frost with his solipsism. That was the impetus; but it petered out, and after the first sentence the poem goes downhill rapidly. It becomes tendentious, almost peevish…. Then in the last line everything goes to pieces. The poet, in despair, names what his poem is about, "truth," thus committing the poet's cardinal sin; and at once the poem is destroyed, the labored metaphor of the well collapses. What lies at the bottom of the well is—is—is … but of course it cannot be named, that is the whole point, any more than the meaning of the snowy woods can be named. Yet Frost did it. He pushed and pressed and tried to coerce his poem. And he did it over and over again in other poems, many of them more substantial than this one.
"Two Tramps in Mud Time," another well known poem, is a case in point. It opens with the poet as wood-splitter in the thawing time of late winter, suffering the interruption of two unemployed loggers; this is good localized description, the kind Frost was master of. But then he appears not to know what to do with his opening. The poem wanders into further unnecessary description: the April day, the bluebird, the snow and water; and then it ends in four stanzas of virtually straight editorial matter. The two tramps and the mud-time are left utterly stranded. When one thinks how Frost would have used these figures at the time when he was writing his earlier dramatic and narrative poems, one can see clearly, I believe, how he had deserted his own imagination and how he tried to make up the deficiency through conscious manipulation and force.
One point remains to be made—an important one—which is that although many of the failures are poems associated with Frost's deliberate optimism, many others are products of his darker intuition, just as his successes, too, are distributed, though unevenly, on both sides of the spectrum…. What else should we expect? After all, Frost's talent and his vanity both were functions of the whole man; they had to be. And if I think that in his whole career his vanity overcame his talent, and that he produced in consequence far more failures than a poet of his gifts ought to have produced, his successes still remain intact—such poems as "Mending Wall," "The Black Cottage," "A Servant to Servants," "The Hill Wife," "Acquainted with the Night," and others. These are fine poems, and I think some of them have doubtless already taken on the quality of greatness, as that term is used by historians…. To be concerned with his weakness is, now, a form of compliment. And to be instructed by him about our own weakness is a greater compliment. I see Frost's error repeated again and again in the work of other poets, including my own. I think all of us who labor in vanity have this to learn from him: that only a poet who remains open to experience—and not only open, but submissive, and not only to experience, but to the actual newness of experience here and now—only such a poet can hope to repeat his successes. (pp. 39-41)
Hayden Carruth, "Robert Frost," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring-Summer, 1975, pp. 35-41.
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Despite Frost's expressions of interest in Emily Dickinson, his critics have said nothing about the ways in which his reactions to Dickinson's poetry might have contributed to the shape of his own early poetry…. [There are numerous] affinities and interrelated differences discernible in Frost's early poems, principally that handful published between 1894 and 1901, and the first Dickinson poems published in the 1890s….
In the spring of 1892, during his final months at Lawrence High School, Frost discovered the poetry of Emily Dickinson, just out in two small volumes, Poems (1890) and Poems, Second Series (1891). He was immediately taken with her, discovering in her poetry the voice of a kindred New England soul. "Although her terse, homely, gnomic, cryptic, witty qualities appealed very strongly to him," writes Lawrance Thompson, "he was again fascinated to find that his new author was also 'troubled about many things' concerning death…. [The] poems which cut deepest for him were those which expressed her doubt whether any reasons fashioned by the mind concerning life in heaven could compensate for the heart's passionate and instinctive regrets over the transience of earthly bliss." (p. 371)
Frost's "The Birds Do Thus" can be read as a reply to [a Dickinson poem]. Her anxiety is countered by his whimsy. If, as she decides plaintively in her twelve-line, three-stanza poem, that "earth is short" (meaning, of course, that what is short is one's stay on earth), then Frost in his poem of the same length disagrees by answering that "Life's not so short." If, for Dickinson, "anguish is absolute," then Frost's advice is to sleep away "the unhappy days." Even Frost's use of the short line coincides with Dickinson's customary practice, but with a difference. While Dickinson moves from two-foot to three-foot lines and back again, Frost stubbornly sticks to the greater regularity of the two-foot line. (pp. 372-73)
Between Frost's ["My Butterfly"] and [Dickinson's several "butterfly" poems] there are thematic correspondences—particularly the importance of flight and journey, the butterfly's dalliance with immortality, and the ephemeral nature of the individual's life cycle. There are also differences, and they suggest the difference between the accomplished poet and the talented apprentice. In two important respects "My Butterfly" is less modern than Dickinson's [poems]. First, its diction is slightly archaic, at best early Victorian—"thine," "thee," "frighted," "oft," "wist," "dist," "o'er-eager." Second, and more characteristically, is Frost's propensity to adapt his poetic symbol to an explicitly personal allegory. In the third stanza Frost presents rather discursively his allegorical application of the butterfly's fate to his own biography. Emblemized morals subjectively presented remained common in Frost, though he would learn to handle them with great skill. (pp. 375-76)
[In his poem "In White"] Frost moves away from the Dickinsonian idea of heroic extinction into a white immortality to his own emphasis upon the fated, designed convergence of whiteness and death. Echoing Dickinson's preoccupation with the color itself, "In White" … works back through "My Butterfly" to Dickinson's "From the Chrysalis" (1890)…. At best, in ["My Butterfly" and "In White"] at least, Frost answers Dickinson's trace of bright optimism with his own version of end-of-the-century naturalism.
Dickinson's customary view of the butterfly's ephemeral day as a flight of ecstasy, rather than as a tragic rush toward death, provided Frost with the core of still another poem. His "Pod of the Milkweed" builds on her most panegyric celebration of the ephemeral butterfly's total freedom. The poet begins by "Calling all butterflies of every race/From source unknown but from no special place," and he continues in a vein that recalls Dickinson in her most festive mood…. In their sinless intemperance Frost's butterflies play out the ironic boasts of Dickinson's "I taste a liquor never brewed," and the ecstasy of these "ephemerals" again links Frost's poetry to Dickinson's. Significantly, Frost's poem does not end at this point. It swerves away from Dickinson's climactic treatment of the exuberant, soulful butterfly, to the notation that the broken milkweed and exhausted butterfly are, after all, the sum and residue of that day's singular activity…. (pp. 378-79)
Emily Dickinson's poetry was useful to Frost in various ways. It constituted a source for congenial images and themes. (p. 380)
That Emily Dickinson's poetry was often in Frost's mind during his first decade as a poet can be established in still another way. Even when the primary source of a poem was not Dickinson, Frost still tended to cast his poem in Dickinsonian terms. (p. 382)
Judging by whatever success Frost had in placing his poetry in his first dozen years of trying, one is struck with the fact that it was his handful of Dickinsonian poems which first achieved print. Her example had shown him the way to the kind of poetry he then wanted to write and that, to a modest extent, his editors wanted to put before their readers. Throughout his long career he would continue to deal lyrically with certain themes that Dickinson had first put into poetic focus for him, but early on he had discovered the characteristics of a personal voice which took him in the direction of his major work. Yet to Frost, Emily Dickinson's poetry never ceased to be an example, a resource, a warning, a challenge, and, above all, a threat. He did not name her but one suspects that Frost had Dickinson in mind when late in life he insisted that one of his reasons for writing "eclogues" was "to do something women have never succeeded in doing." (p. 384)
George Monteiro, "Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost" (© by George Monteiro), in Prairie Schooner, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 369-86.