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Frost, Robert 1874–1963
Frost is recognized as one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century. 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 its simplistic philosophy and form. He embraced the problems of the common man, however, and because of the diversity and effective use of symbolism found in his poetry, enjoyed a wide appeal. Frost received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry four times. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9, 10.)
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Mr. Frost is only expatriated in a physical sense. Living in England he is, nevertheless, saturated with New England. For not only is his work New England in subject, it is so in technique. No hint of European forms has crept into it. It is certainly the most American volume of poetry which has appeared for some time. I use the word American in the way it is constantly employed by contemporary reviewers, to mean work of a color so local as to be almost photographic….
The thing which makes Mr. Frost's work remarkable is the fact that he has chosen to write it as verse. We have been flooded for twenty years with New England stories in prose…. [No hint of humor] appears in "North of Boston." And just because of the lack of it, just because its place is taken by an irony, sardonic and grim, Mr. Frost's book reveals a disease which is eating into the vitals of our New England life, at least in its rural communities. (p. 18)
[We cannot] explain the great numbers of people, sprung from old New England stock, but not themselves living in remote country places, who go insane.
It is a question for the psychiatrist to answer, and it would be interesting to ask it with "North of Boston" as a textbook to go by…. Mr. Frost's is not the kindly New England of Whittier, nor the humorous and sensible one of Lowell; it is a latter-day New England, where a civilization is decaying to give place to another and very different one. (pp. 18-19)
His people are left-overs of the old stock, morbid, pursued by phantoms, slowly sinking to insanity. (p. 19)
I have said that Mr. Frost's work is almost photographic. The qualification was unnecessary, it is photographic. The pictures, the characters, are reproduced directly from life, they are burnt into his mind as though it were a sensitive plate. He gives out what has been put in unchanged by any personal mental process. His imagination is bounded by what he has seen, he is confined within the limits of his experience (or at least what might have been his experience) and bent all one way like the wind-blown trees of New England hillsides. (p. 20)
He tells you what he has seen exactly as he has seen it. And in the word exactly lies the half of his talent. The other half is a great and beautiful simplicity of phrase, the inheritance of a race brought up on the English Bible. Mr. Frost's work is not in the least objective. He is not writing of people whom he has met in summer vacations, who strike him as interesting, and whose life he thinks worthy of perpetuation. Mr. Frost writes as a man under the spell of a fixed idea. He is as racial as his own puppets. One of the great interests of the book is the uncompromising New Englander it reveals…. Mr. Frost is as New England as Burns is Scotch, Synge Irish, or Mistral Provençal.
And Mr. Frost has chosen his medium with an unerring sense of fitness. As there is no rare and vivid imaginative force playing over his subjects, so there is no exotic music pulsing through his verse. He has not been seduced into subtleties of expression which would be painfully out of place. His words are simple, straightforward, direct, manly, and there is an elemental quality in all he does which would surely be lost if he chose to pursue niceties of phrase. He writes in classic metres in a way to set the teeth of all the poets of the older schools on edge; and he writes in classic metres, and uses inversions and clichés whenever he pleases, those devices so abhorred by the newest generation. He goes his own way, regardless of anyone else's rules, and the result is a book of unusual power and sincerity.
The poems are written for the most part in blank verse, blank verse which does not hesitate to leave out a syllable or put one in, whenever it feels like it. To the classicist such liberties would be unendurable. But the method has its advantages. It suggests the hardness and roughness of New England granite. It is halting and maimed, like the life it portrays; unyielding in substance, and broken in effect.
Mr. Frost has done that remarkable thing, caught a fleeting epoch and stamped it into print. He might have done it as well in prose, but I do not think so, and if the book is not great poetry, it is nevertheless a remarkable achievement. (pp. 20-1)
Amy Lowell, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1915 The New Republic, Inc.), February 20, 1915 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: The Critical Reception, edited by Linda W. Wagner, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977).
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At its worst [Mr. Frost's indirectness] is a mannerism, a tour de force of syntax; it puzzles with mere obscurity. At its best it is poetry of the subtlest sort, because it carries the conviction that there was no other way to communicate the reticence inherent both in the subject and in the poet. Out of "A Star in a Stone-Boat," for instance, an idea gradually emerges which Mr. Frost could not and should not have expressed directly. He has paced all the way around the idea, hinting of this or that aspect; the idea itself is left for the reader to get, and if he is the right kind of reader he will get it and rejoice. In a larger sense also the indirectness of Mr. Frost justifies itself. His love of the country is so profound that he will not say in so many words that he loves it. Indeed, one has the illusion that Mr. Frost would rather not talk at all. Now and then he has confessed to being moved by birches, or an occasional lonely house; but countless other things must wait their day, and most of them will wait in vain. To create such an illusion is to be one poet in ten thousand. (p. 61)
Mark Van Doren, in The Nation (copyright 1923 The Nation Associates), December 19, 1923 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: The Critical Reception, edited by Linda W. Wagner, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977).
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No contemporary poet has been more praised than Robert Frost, and no poet has ever been more praised for the wrong things. The early reviews of "West-Running Brook" have renewed the false emphasis. Most of the critics are surprised that the writer identified with the long monologues in "North of Boston" should turn to lyrics, forgetting that Frost's first volume (written in the 1890's and published twenty years later) was wholly and insistently lyrical. (p. 71)
Here, in his latest work, is a reflection and a restatement of his earliest. This is philosophy in terms of the lyric. But the first as well as the final appeal is neither to the brain nor to the ear; beneath the graceful image there speaks a greatness of soul.
It is this spiritual sustenance which has always strengthened Frost's passionate puritanism…. Frost, legend to the contrary, reveals himself, actually gives himself away with every raillery, every wisp of metaphor, every conversational aside. Avoiding the analytical, this poetry is a constant search; a search for absolutes. Better still, it is a search for the Absolute—in man, in poetry, in God. (p. 72)
["Bereft"] may be considered a key-note poem. It is, in a sense, a sequel to the extremely early "Trial by Existence"; here, at the end of independence, is only the last courage, the loneliness, the nothingness—"and where there is nothing, there is God." But "West-Running Brook" is not so much a sequel as it is a composite of the early and later Frost. What seems a mellowing and maturing turns out to be the fruit of intuition rather than experience….
Frost's power of lifting the colloquial to the pitch of poetry has always been apparent (it raises even so broad a bucolic as "Something inspires the only cow of late"); in the new volume he maintains his rôle of half-earnest synecdochist. Here, again, offering the part for the whole, he reestablishes the force of suggestion and reaffirms his conviction: "All that an artist needs is samples." Parsimony is achieved in almost every one of the new poems. (p. 73)
A certain technical shift may be noticed here and there, a somewhat more rhythmic ease apparent in the slightest of his quatrains. The verse itself has more of the "sound" that Frost cherishes, a talk-flavored tone that has the common vitality of prose without ever ceasing to be poetry….
Here, in ["West-Running Brook"] is the metaphysical lyric as no one but Robert Frost could write it…. The ripe repose, the banked emotion, the nicely blended tenderness and humor are everywhere. Growth? Change? A new note? The answers may be found in two lines of one of Frost's first poems, a premonitory couplet written before 1900:
They would not find me changed from him they knew,
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
Louis Untermeyer, "Still Robert Frost," in Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1928 by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 22, 1928 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: The Critical Reception, edited by Linda W. Wagner, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977, pp. 71-4).
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Frost could not have known what a stunning effect his repetition of the last line [in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"] was going to produce. He could not even know he was going to repeat the line. He simply found himself up against a difficulty he almost certainly had not foreseen and he had to improvise to meet it….
It must have been in some such quandary that the final repetition suggested itself—a suggestion born of the very difficulties the poet had let himself in for. So there is that point beyond mere ease in handling a hard thing, the point at which the very difficulty offers the poet the opportunity to do better than he knew he could. What, aside from having that happen to oneself, could be more self-delighting than to participate in its happening by one's reader-identification with the poem?…
[The] human-insight of the poem and the technicalities of its poetic artifice are inseparable. Each feeds the other. That interplay is the poem's meaning, a matter not of WHAT DOES IT MEAN, for no one can ever say entirely what a good poem means, but of HOW DOES IT MEAN, a process one can come much closer to discussing….
Once at Bread Loaf … I heard him add one very essential piece to the discussion of how ["Stopping by Woods"] "just came." One night, he said, he had sat down after supper to work at a long piece of blank verse. The piece never worked out, but Mr. Frost found himself so absorbed in it that, when next he looked up, dawn was at his window. He rose, crossed to the window, stood looking out for a few minutes, and then it was that "Stopping by Woods" suddenly "just came," so that all he had to do was cross the room and write it down.
Robert Frost is the sort of artist who hides his traces. I know of no Frost worksheets anywhere. If someone has raided his wastebasket in secret, it is possible that such worksheets exist somewhere, but Frost would not willingly allow anything but the finished product to leave him. Almost certainly, therefore, no one will ever know what was in that piece of unsuccessful blank verse he had been working at with such concentration, but I for one would stake my life that could that worksheet be uncovered, it would be found to contain the germinal stuff of "Stopping by Woods"; that what was a-simmer in him all night without finding its proper form, suddenly, when he let his still-occupied mind look away, came at him from a different direction, offered itself in a different form, and that finding that form exactly right the impulse proceeded to marry itself to the new shape in one of the most miraculous performances of English lyricism.
And that, too—whether or not one can accept so hypothetical a discussion—is part of HOW the poem means. It means that marriage to the perfect form, the poem's shapen declaration of itself, its moment's monument fixed beyond all possibility of change. And thus, finally, in every truly good poem, "How does it mean?" must always be answered, "Triumphantly." Whatever the poem "is about," how it means is always how Genesis means: the word become a form, and the form become a thing, and—when the becoming is true—the thing become a part of the knowledge and experience of the race forever. (p. 65)
John Ciardi, "Robert Frost: The Way to the Poem," in Saturday Review (Entire issue copyright 1958 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 12, 1958, pp. 13-15, 65.
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[Even] though Frost is extremely gifted in his ability to make even the least lyric poem dramatic, he is primarily a subjective lyric poet, at his best in his apparently contradictory moods of response to experience and in his figurative ways of defining differences…. [The] matrix-pattern of A Boy's Will foreshadows his persistent pleasure in employing the lyric mode as an expression of self-discovery, even of psychological self-education, concerning his own ties to his beloved, to strangers, to nature, to the universe, to God. If it might be argued that these are the familiar concerns of most lyric poets, one differentiation may be suggested. For Frost, the ultimate and ulterior preoccupation is with a poetic view of life which he can consider complete, in the sense that it encompasses and integrates all these relationships figuratively, and yet not systematically. His ulterior concern is always with psychic and spiritual salvation. Frost's awareness of his differences from conventional attitudes, in his defense of the unsystematic, is at least implied in such a confession as this:
And were an epitaph to be my story
I'd have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover's quarrel with the world.
Once again, the contraries implicit in that phrase "lover's quarrel" do not imply either physical or metaphysical rebellion against the human condition…. His "lover's quarrel with the world" may have begun through his wanting and trying to discover or define his own sense of simultaneous separateness and integration. More than that, a large part of his poetic pleasure would seem to be derived from his finding verse not only an end in itself but also a means to the end of making each poem a "clarification of life," at least a clarification of his own attitude toward life. (pp. 15-16)
Repeatedly, in Frost's lyrics, the playful seriousness evokes ironies and ambiguities which imply that some of the poet's representations of his outward quarrels with the world may also be taken as either conscious or unconscious projections of inward conflicts. At times, some of his poems achieve an extra dimension of meaning if viewed as constructed around his conscious and yet unstated realization of his own divided awareness. His taunts and countertaunts thus pick up enrichments of meaning if the poem is viewed as contending, at one and the same time, with enemies inside and outside his own heart and mind. (p. 17)
Frost, who boasted of his Puritan descent, and who was decidedly puritanical in many of his sympathies, might be viewed as a nonconforming Puritan nonconformist.
For the sake of poetry, there would seem to be a kind of convenience or luxury or at least artistic usefulness in the very posture of heresy. It provides the artist not only with greater freedom to manipulate his raw materials but also with the added chance to indulge varying moods of belief and unbelief. He can say with Horatio, in Hamlet, "So have I heard and do in part believe it." But in Frost's case it would seem more accurate to suggest that his poetic flaunting of heresies largely stems from his inability to derive adequate intellectual-emotional-spiritual satisfaction from any systematic dogma which imposes intolerable limitations on a temperament which delights to seek truth through questions and dialogue. (p. 20)
For various and complicated reasons, his fluctuating and ambiguous viewpoint mocks, at times, any complacent notions concerning a benevolent design in nature…. For Frost, the attempt to see clearly, and from all sides, requires a willingness to confront the frightening and the appalling in even its darkest forms.
Any careful reader of Frost's poems notices how frequently "fear" provides different kinds of premises for him. If nature and human nature have the power to reduce man to a fearful sense of his own smallness, his own lostness, in a seemingly indifferent or even malicious universe, then one suggested way to confront such fear is to imagine life stripped down to a minimum; to decide whether enough is left to go on with; then to consider the question whether the possible gains are worth the necessary cost…. [Many of the later poems] closely represent the confrontations of fear, lostness, alienation, not so much for purposes of shuddering as for purposes of overcoming fright, first through individual and then through social ingenuity, courage, daring, and action. (pp. 20-2)
[Frost] mentioned Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Thoreau's Walden as thematically rhyming for him: "Robinson Crusoe is never quite out of my mind. I never tire of being shown how the limited can make snug in the limitless. Walden has something of the same fascination. Crusoe was cast away; Thoreau was self-cast away. Both found themselves sufficient. No prose writer has ever been more fortunate in subject than these two." By implication, no subject matter has ever made stronger appeal to Frost, for poetry, than that same question as to how the limited man can make snug in the limitless. As it happens, many of his poems talk back and forth to each other as though calculated to answer something like Pascal's old-new observation, "When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind me, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know not me, I am afraid." Understanding that kind of fear, Frost expresses much the same mood, with a twist, in his poem entitled "Desert Places." But he more often prefers to answer the existential problem of "what to make of a diminished thing" by representing characters who confront the excruciations by means of order-giving actions. For example, in the dramatic monologue entitled "An Empty Threat," the speaker is a fur trader who has chosen to work out his purposes almost alone, on the frozen shore of Hudson Bay. Although he recognizes all the symbols of defeat and death in the bleak landscape, the speaker is represented as uttering his flat rejoinder, "I stay," in the first line of the poem…. [The question of plan or design] obliquely raised suggests answers not so much in terms of the known or unknown but rather in terms of the possible. The poem concludes with the suggestion that if man is given his choice of succumbing to paralyzing doubts and fears or of translating even limited faith into possibly constructive action, then the choice ought to be made with ease. (pp. 22-3)
Even though he likes to indulge at least the posture of not-knowing, Frost sooner or later makes it clear that not too much is left in doubt, for him. If there are times when he seems to take particular pleasure in defining his beliefs in terms of his heresies, he cannot play metaphorical hide-and-seek too long without trailing clouds of puritanic certainty. For example, one of his most paradoxical and most metaphysical poems ["All Revelation"] begins by tantalizing the reader with ambiguities, and even continues with various forms of teasing provocation through the last line…. (p. 24)
The last line of "All Revelation" makes a use of hyperbole which ought to be challenged by any thoughtful reader. "All revelation has been ours" is a very bold assertion. It might suggest that man endows nature with whatever order and meaning it has. But if that way of interpreting this last line may be attractive to some readers, it is not congenial to the controls provided by Frost's larger context of poetic utterances…. For Frost, whatever kind of revelation man here makes or achieves, through the uses of sense and skill, implies at least some kind of precedence of order and of design in nature. So the word "revelation," as poetically operative here, would seem to pick up its Frostian meaning only if it is viewed as representing a two-way process: an act of collaboration…. ([The] same theme, with its religious overtones of meaning, is developed further by Frost in A Masque of Reason.)
The counterbalancing of contrary attitudes or viewpoints, in "All Revelation," further suggests the poet's distaste for lingering too long in moods which merely accentuate the apparent design of darkness to appall, in the structure of the universe; his distaste for stressing too heavily the fright which can be and is derived from too much contemplation of inner and outer desert places. Yet he never lets us forget the limitations. At times, he editorializes or even preaches, poetically, with unabashed and strongly puritanical tones of warning and corrective, against the sin of indulging too much concern for the imponderables, in or beyond nature. (pp. 26-7)
Frost's recurrent elements of theme involving fear, isolation, lostness, not-knowing, and discontinuity … remain operative in the poems, side by side with these recurrent elements of faith and love and continuity. His juxtaposition of contrary and yet ultimately complementary images and themes finds its most elaborately paradoxical expression in those two masques which Frost chose to place in a significant summary position, at the conclusion to his volume which he also chose to entitle, with figurative overtones, Complete Poems.
As the titles suggest, A Masque of Reason and A Masque of Mercy explore contrary themes; yet once again they are contraries which permit us to view the two masques as complementary. More than that, they provide an epitome, or a gathering metaphor, of many major themes developed by Frost in the poems which precede and succeed them. Relationships are again explored in each of the masques; man's ultimate relationships to self, to society, to nature, to the universe, to God. Or, to say it another way, the two masques further extend themes involving man's perennial sense of isolation and communion, of fear and courage, of ignorance and knowledge, of discontinuity and continuity. (pp. 32-3)
In the initial action [of A Masque of Reason], Frost represents Job, his wife, and God as conducting an intimate postmortem concerning the strengths and weaknesses of human reason in trying to understand the divine plan or design. Intimacy permits Job to ask his questions with all the ardor, boldness, even insolence of one participating in a family quarrel. If the orthodox reader should find himself offended by such apparent irreverence, or should find God represented in terms contrary to trite conventional concepts, the implicit mockery of accepted notions is again not accidental.
Because the action begins some two thousand years after the death of Job, all the characters have the advantage of encompassing modern knowledge and attitudes, so that the seeming anachronisms of reference suggest continuity in time and space. Job's concern is to ask God's "reason" for inflicting torture on innocent human beings. After preliminary hesitancy and sparring, God takes occasion to thank Job for his collaboration in an epoch-making action:
I've had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you someday for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There's no connection man can reason out
Between his just deserts and what he gets.
That phrase "the way you helped me" may recall notions advanced by William James and others concerning a suffering God, limited and thwarted in his plan to realize his divine purpose so long as man is indifferent and uncooperative. Also echoed throughout the masque is the related Bergsonian concept of a continuously creative process which develops the universe. But as Frost adapts these assumptions to his own sympathetic uses, he combines them with his favorite puritanic emphasis on the limitations of reason as it affects the relationship between man and God: "there's no connection man can reason out …". (pp. 33-4)
[God's] phrase "it was of the essence of the trial" may permit a further reminder here that Frost's earlier poems can be taken as notes and grace notes to these two masques. He had previously honored the conventional puritanic tendency to heap a heavy burden of meaning on the word "trial."… In A Masque of Reason, these various views are again invoked and now mingled with Jamesian-Bergsonian notions, as God reviews the changing or evolving attitude of man toward God, achieved with the help of Job and others. (pp. 34-5)
But Job, not yet satisfied with God's explanation of suffering, says at one point, "Such devilish ingenuity of torture / Did seem unlike You …" God has already admitted to Job that even as Job had been one of his helpers, so Satan had been another, with all his originality of sin. Job's wife helps by describing Satan as "God's best inspiration." In other words, good needs evil to complement it, else each would be meaningless. The conclusion of the masque represents God as confessing his motive had initially been that simple: "I was just showing off to the Devil, Job." (p. 36)
Considered as a work of art, A Masque of Reason is too largely composed of talk-talk, and too little dependent on action, to give it dramatic merit. But if considered as poetry, it can at least serve to clarify and unify many of the contrary meanings in the earlier and later poems. Notice that Frost's mockery of conventional religious concepts is here once again counterbalanced by sympathetic representations of theological views which, however fragmentary, are quite in accord with certain elements of Calvinistic Puritan doctrine. The masque thus provides further evidence that no matter how much Frost may have thought he rejected the received assumptions of his religious heritage, he indulged that posture of rejection, through his art and thought, to realize a difference which was never too pronounced. (pp. 36-7)
[The] dominant thematic concern of A Masque of Mercy may be said to pivot once again on the limitations of human knowledge as it involves different responses to various kinds of fear, starting and ending with the wisdom-unwisdom of man's fearing God. Indirectly, these notions are related to the convictions of Job, in the earlier masque, that no matter what "progress" may be, it cannot mean that the earth has become an easier place for man to save his soul; that unless earth can serve as a difficult trial-ground, the hardships of existence become meaningless. (p. 38)
Robert Frost did not bother to articulate more than fragments of his poetic theory, and yet certain essentials of it can be deduced from his poetic practice. If we remember that his wide acclaim has been earned during an era of artistic innovation and experiment, we may marvel at his having achieved such distinction merely by letting his idiom discover old ways to be new, within the traditional conventions of lyric and dramatic and thematic modes. While Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and others invoked or invented elaborate mythic frames of reference which have enriched and complicated artistic strategies, Frost would seem to have risked successfully the purification of poetic utterance, in complicating simple forms. As we have seen, however, he quite consciously assimilates to his own New England idiom such varieties of classical conventions as the relaxed modes of the Theocritan idylls, the terse epigrammatic brevity of Martial, the contemplative serenity of Horace, the sharply satirical intensity of Juvenal, the homely didacticism of Aesop. Yet his treasured firsthand familiarity with and admiration for the classics have not been displayed in ways which make his meanings depend on esoteric scholarship. Quite clearly, he has deliberately chosen to address himself to the common reader.
But if the majority of Frost's admirers would seem content to share the poet's delight in cherishing the humble beauties of nature, recorded by him with such precision of response to images of experience among New England fields, farms, roadsides, and forests, those readers have been willing to settle for too little, when so many other and deeper levels of meaning are available in his poems. It has frequently and correctly been pointed out that Frost's poetic concerns are akin to those which led Wordsworth to choose incidents and situations from common life and then to present them in a language actually used by the common man whose heartfelt passions are not restrained. Like Wordsworth, and like many poets before and after Wordsworth, Frost has particularly emphasized his concern for catching within the lines of his poems the rhythms and cadences and tones of human speech. Among modern poets, he has been one of the many who have advocated a capturing of what he has repeatedly referred to as "the sound of sense" or "sound posturing" to provide a complicating enrichment of the underlying metrical rhythm. (pp. 40-1)
His primary artistic achievement, which is an enviable one, in spite of shortcomings, rests on his blending of thought and emotion and symbolic imagery within the confines of the lyric. It would seem to be an essential part of both his theory and practice to start with a single image, or to start with an image of an action, and then to endow either or both with a figurativeness of meaning, which is not fully understood by the reader until the extensions of meaning are found to transcend the physical.
While no one could correctly call Frost a transcendentalist, his kinship with Emerson goes deeper than might at first be noticed. (p. 41)
We have noticed in Frost's poetic theory and practice he likes to endow images and actions with implicitly metaphorical and symbolic meanings until they repeatedly suggest a continuity between his vision of the human "fact" and the divine "fact." We have also noticed that he likes the tension between two ways of looking at such thought-felt moods; that his own moments of doubt, in these matters, seem to afford him the luxury of reaffirmation. In such a context, a poem like "Mowing" reveals further kinships between Frost and Emerson. In his essay on "The Poet" Emerson writes, "I find that the fascination resides in the symbol." Frost would agree. Emerson goes on to say that the response of the farmer to nature is a sympathetic form of worship…. Again Frost would agree, at least in part; but it must be pointed out that Frost's view of nature-assymbol does not coincide with the Emersonian view. Neither does it coincide with the New England puritanical view of nature-as-symbol. Nevertheless, to those Puritan forefathers against whom both Emerson and Frost partially rebelled, self-reliance was God-reliance. Even those Puritan forefathers also insisted that laborare est orare. Whatever the differences in the three positions, the likenesses are significant.
"Prayer," says Emerson, with almost puritanical exultation, "is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul." Frost would have been embarrassed to speak out that frankly in open meeting; but his poems obliquely imply his own assent to the notion. The core of his poetic theory, as of his poetic practice, is to be found in his uses of the sensuous responses of loving and cherishing, first as important poetic images of human actions; then, simultaneously, as even more important symbols of divine worship and even of prayer: "May my sacrifice be found acceptable in Heaven's sight."
In conclusion it should be said that the approach here used, in an attempt to increase our appreciation and understanding of Robert Frost's life and art, is only one of many possible approaches. It is calculated to suggest that many elements run counter to themselves, therein, without any ultimate contradictions. It also provides a means of noticing that Frost's entire work is deeply rooted in the American, even in the most vital Puritan, idiom. It is "native to the grain," and yet thoroughly original. (pp. 43-4)
Lawrence Thompson, in his Robert Frost (American Writers Pamphlet No. 2; © 1959, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1959.
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[The] personality of Robert Frost, the impact of his living presence, was known as inextricably bound up with his poetry. His mastery was also in what he would not do, in his recognition of what he could not do. (pp. 180-81)
If Poe showed a disintegrated personality, and if Emily Dickinson possessed one partly so, Robert Frost exhibited an integrated personality. He was integrated with the life of his times and his nation. He was integrated with nature because he began when man could feel a less urban sense of where man exists on the face of the earth and in relation to the universe…. Frost's poetry goes back to early American farm life, partaking of a pastoral feeling which, in turn, goes back to the Latin authors who formed his style. (p. 181)
While Frost was integrated with what might be termed the rural life of his times, and wrote a sort of elegant pastoral, there is a question whether in future his relevance to the whole of life will increase or diminish. (pp. 181-82)
[Perhaps] in the future Frost's vision will be pushed farther back in the past, in a sense, than would be expected, and he will be considered as dated and fixed to his times by the year 2000 as Longfellow is now for the most part only considered in relation to his times. This is a guess. A further guess is that a poet of comparable size in the near future, or in the far future, must be one who speaks not of country things, but holds a mirror up to the central doings, the goings and comings, the preoccupations and hazards of an almost totally urbanized population.
One reason why Frost is almost universally admired is that he believed in this world. He is skeptical of any other. He celebrates the possibilities of life as it is, its large and rich resources. In "Away!" (1958) he tells us, with a deeply reserved humor, that he'd like to come back to earth "from having died," if he doesn't like it over there. Earth's the best place for love.
This poem also shows his basic sense of will, the assumption that man should be able to control his own destiny. (p. 182)
While we are on this notion of death, it might be pointed out that in "A Soldier," written about the time of World War I, he goes as far toward spirituality as he ever does. He does not go as far as to embrace Christianity or any other religion, but his sensitivity for the dead soldier ends the poem as follows:
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.
It should be said that, although Frost's style and basic attitudes have not changed in a world of remarkable change, he was not paid attention to in the Thirties and part of the Forties as he was earlier and later. Having spoken of World War I in poetry, he left it to other poets to address and assess World War II. Having spoken for individualism, even optimism, and not being for any form of socialism, he was somewhat eclipsed for about two decades. It should also be said that the importance and religious convictions of T. S. Eliot cut down during this period on the interest in Frost's different kind of mind. Students of modern literature learn with amazement and joy of the great last period in the poetry of Yeats, wherein he perfected a new, austere style to express his mature convictions. In the late life of Frost there is no new style, rather, a consolidation of the old; there is a flowering of influence in the continuance of his old, excellent style which is almost without parallel…. Where Yeats at the last came to an "artifice of eternity," believing in mind alone, Frost offers a full humanity of head and heart. He also offers simplicity and understandability as essentials of poetry. And, as I said before, he believes in the world as it is, the visible and experiential world, showing it forth in rich terms. He comes to and stays in reality as men know it. His sometime sarcasm, even savagery are saved by a grace of wit which he knows well how to employ. It is not a withdrawn or a too fastidiously complex poet who maintained throughout his life a keen interest in the game of baseball. Poetry, the analogy is, must be a game too. While it is a matter of life and death to the poet, it must not be taken too seriously, in one sense. One must know how to manipulate it as a game or device. (pp. 183-84)
"The Silken Tent" has a more delicate feeling than we get in many of Frost's poems, an aesthetic feeling, wonderfully tender. It is one of the subtlest of his poems. It is a poetic triumph, a Shakespearean sonnet in one sustained sentence. The poem accords with Milton's specification for poetry that it should effect linked sweetness long drawn out. The subtlety of the poem is visual, as fine as the activations of the slightest breeze, yet the poem tantalizes beyond visual pleasure to induce, by "countless silken ties" of ideation, empathy with a natural world of harmony. Many of Frost's poems have a more prosaic feeling, and some have a dark fatalism about them. "Design" is also a sonnet. It is one of Frost's compelling poems, based on visual aesthetics, but, not suffusing the tranquil quality of "The Silken Tent," it disturbs the sense with a dark message although the colors shown are white. Yet the pleasure in reading the poem is so keen that the darkness of the message is masked as if by a withdrawal into undynamic aesthetics. (pp. 184-85)
[Design] shifts and holds off to a disinterested view the implacable workings of nature; then with a deft last stroke, as if not wishing to oppress the reader with dogma, it gives him an out or a leeway that maybe the vast design of the universe, however fixed, final, or fatal, may not be mirrored in a situation "so small" as that of the juxtaposition of spider, heal-all, and moth. This is a turn of Frost's nicest wit, a leaning back into the human as against the absolute confrontation of inhuman or superhuman forces…. (p. 187)
"Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" represents the humanistic nature of his thinking. He wishes never to go too far in any direction, but to keep his perceptions in the middle of his heart. He is thus able, in many poems as in this one, to speak for feelings that are universally valid. The situation is simple. People on land tend to look at the sea when they stand at the edge of the land. "They look at the sea all day." It is as if the sea might be or become a natural symbol of something beyond themselves…. The last stanza makes two broad generalizations out of the depths of Frost's feelings. These are based on strong restraint. "They cannot look out far. / They cannot look in deep." Behind these two sentences lies Frost's realization of the limitations of man. They suggest that there is something far and something deep to which man cannot get, but instead of erecting some new symbol for this farness, this depth, which a Romantic poet might do, Frost characteristically brings the matter home to a usable, natural consideration. When was the fact of our inability to perceive life as it may be a hindrance to our keeping watch on life as it is? Keeping watch on life as it is is what we have to do every day. It is this basic necessity which Frost celebrates in this poem.
The restraint of Frost's strongly balanced and Classical nature is shown again in "The Onset." With the beginning of winter, man may feel that he can do something about life or nature, but he knows that he cannot hold back winter. Frost says:
I almost stumble looking up and round,
As one who overtaken by the end
Gives up his errand, and 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.
It is said as if in an aside, this hope of man to do something to evil. It is as if wit were the final motive for this, for any natural man knows that evil is ineradicable. The phrase is a kind of shadowboxing, a wish fulfillment, as if it were slipped in or allowed by the unconscious, not the conscious mind. It is a telling phrase; it tells us a great deal about Frost, driven by a demon of the will. Then the poem goes on in an arbitrary way to state that spring will overcome winter. He says: "Winter death has never tried / The earth but it has failed." We accept the end of the poem for what it is talking about; we warm to the poet's emphasis upon spring rather than winter…. The point of the poem is that it expresses man's universal wish for the death of winter.
Criticism of many of the poems is so easily available that it is not my purpose to adumbrate and elucidate many of his well-known poems. I would prefer to point up his powers of concentration in the shortest type of poem, the couplet or distich.
Frost has a group of couplets in which he can be arch and succinct. These are concentrated essences of meaning and suggestion.
"The Secret Sits" reads as follows:
We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
This is an admirable closed statement. It admits the limits of man's knowledge. It is a truth-telling. Despite the frenzied actions of man, there is a still center. (pp. 191-92)
Frost unmasks himself in relation to God in "Not All There." It goes:
I turned to speak to God
About the world's despair,
But to make bad matters worse
I found God wasn't there.
God turned to speak to me
(Don't anybody laugh)
God found I wasn't there—
At least not over half.
The last line redeems the poem by some pity beyond derision. I assess it that Frost thinks God would want man to be whole. To make God find man only half there gives us a wry comment on life. This poem shows the artistic balance of Frost. The first four uncompromising lines are compromised in the second four. He allows the reader to have it both ways, an atheistical negation balanced by a dualistic system which can be read in terms of either God or man. (pp. 193-94)
When you read and make part of your consciousness and knowledge of life many of his poems, you may agree to a generalization that Frost stands firmly in this world and that his poems deal with an astute knowledge of others as well as of himself. He wants each of his poems to be in some way dramatic. He often told his audiences to note how different they are one from another. While he has deep personal lyrics, such as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," Frost never lets himself go in a piercing, self-revelatory, Romantic way as Gerard Manley Hopkins did. (p. 194)
Frost is a different kind of poet. His self-revelations are temporal and are embedded in poems showing human situations. He is not a confessional poet in the sense that Hopkins is a totally confessional one. Hopkins is committed to the Christian view. Frost is a secular poet, functioning and thriving in a Christian society. (p. 195)
Frost loved man as well as things. He does not turn away from mankind but speaks for it in some way in every poem. His great popularity is due in part to the love of life and of man, imperfect as they are. All readers can share in varying ways with this sympathy and this human understanding. (p. 196)
Frost was not a Platonist. He refused consciously throughout a lifetime to use the word "beauty" in his poetry. He was rooted in the here and now, the actual and the real, and it is easy to see that Frost belongs in the Aristotelian camp. He was not, of course, like Aristotle. Aristotle, while being almost everything else as a thinker, was not a poet. But Frost was also not at all like Shelley. It might be interesting for a moment to compare them. Shelley plucked poetry out of the air, as it were. He was protean, fertile, variable, quick, malleable. Frost is nothing like this. His poetry is rocklike, not ebullient; quiet, not wild; factual, not hallucinated; solid, not evanescent; relevant to things, not creating a dream world; rational, not irrational; well tempered, incapable of what the Greeks called divine frenzy; plausible, not an extremist; well grounded, not aerial; given to quatrains, couplets, and other set forms, not inventing new measures; recording man deep and sure, not strange and high. (p. 198)
The remarkable thing is that throughout his long, fruitful life Frost was able to write so many masterful poems, so consistently, and with so little deviation from the central excellence of his early work. He modestly said that he only wanted a few poems that men will not wish to get rid of; the few are, in fact, many. And no doubt men will be saying them "ages and ages hence." It may be that some of his attraction lies in the fact that urban man longs to remember a closer association he had with nature…. Certainly some of his attraction lies in the rare ability he has of appealing both to unsophisticated and to sophisticated readers of poetry. He cuts across all classes, is a classless poet. Children and young students can understand him; at the same time he appeals to the most learned men in many professions due to the subtlety of his thought. He is at once simple and profound. He has great range of interest and great breadth of technical resource. I have indicated repeatedly that his natural bias is in favor of this world; he engages us totally in what is commonly known and felt to be reality, and this may be his greatest gift. He is more of a realist than he is an idealist, as he is more a localist than an internationalist. But let me philosophize.
The brutal fact is that no man knows whether there is anything beyond death. This is a prime baffling fact of existence. Let us suppose that there is nothing to life but appearance, nothing to death but the appearance of death and therefore obviously no life after death. If this is the true state of things, then Robert Frost's poetry becomes more valuable than if this were not true. The fact that we do not know adds to the fascination of his ideas and to the potency of the poetical charge of his poems. For then we will have to admire him for his robust stronghearted resistance to any idea of life after death. We will have to salute him for persistent doubt. (pp. 199-200)
However, a deep idea in the world is that there is something beyond it; a deep look at appearance will see right through it that there is something behind or beyond the realm of appearance; an idea as ancient and persistent as man is that there are ultimate mysteries beyond our mortality, that God exists, that there may be life after death. One generation of men rules that there can be no life on any other planet, another generation holds that the mathematical probabilities are that there must be life beyond what we can see. There are notions of eternal recurrence in Oriental religions, the notion of Redemption in Christianity. If these ideas are true, if reality is not in appearances, but must include what does not appear, and if reason is not the highest faculty of man, but intuition is, then we are at liberty to adjust the value we set on Frost's poetry according to our own most intimate values.
Societies have a natural way of preserving their own images in literature. Frost is one of the vital poetic spokesmen of our time. Our society and our culture are sufficiently like his presentation of the meaning of life so that many Americans can read him with conviction.
Robert Frost is large in scope. He teaches us courage in the face of the enigmas of existence. We feel that he wears no mask and speaks the truth directly, and that his truth, if not the whole truth, is worthy of our serious, steadfast, and continuing love. (pp. 200-01)
Richard Eberhart, "Robert Frost: His Personality" (originally a speech delivered at the San Francisco Public Library on October 28, 1964), in The Southern Review (copyright, 1966, by Richard Eberhart), Vol. II, No. 4, Autumn, 1966 (and reprinted in his Of Poetry and Poets, University of Illinois Press, 1979, pp. 179-201.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
Robert Frost was a man of many voices, the most elusive of which may be the lyric "I" of the New England poet-farmer. Believing that "the colloquial is the root of every good poem," and wanting as a corollary to bespeak American individualism and daring, he strove to be accessible without compromising his integrity as a serious, American poet. To do so he had to remain recalcitrantly local: "You can't be universal without being provincial, can you? It's like trying to embrace the wind," he said in a 1916 interview. Literally, of course, his locality is New England; figuratively, it is poetry's traditional themes—love, sorrow, death, nature, aloneness, art—and its traditional forms. It was a daring gamble to approach so near the mediocre and conventional, using them as a spacecraft uses gravitational fields to sling his poems at the last moment into striking newness that reveals what we have always known without seeing. A daring gamble, yes, but as he said, one could do worse. The burden is on him, therefore, to use not only the tension inherent in strict poetic form—the striking of "dramatic tones of meanings … across the rigidity of a limited meter"—but also the tension generated by the convergence of the poetic tradition, particularly the American and the modern and the highly individual talent. Tensions in his poetry redeem the miracle at the heart of the ordinary in any number of ways: in the masterly ear for rhythm and sound that is apparent not only in a tour de force like "Tree at My Window," but also in the spring of a line like "So was I once myself a swinger of birches"; in the imaginative brilliance of the controlling metaphors in poems like "West-Running Brook" and "All Revelation"; in the challenges he sets himself in the organization of his books—the way pairs of poems play off each other in the "Over Back" section of West-Running Brook, or one metaphor develops another in the "One or Two" section of A Witness Tree. Most essentially, however, the poems create their tension by being dramatic. Even seemingly simple lyrics like "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods" are dramatic monologues revolving around a concrete situation which the speaker shapes into instants of human meaning.
The drama of Frost's poetry also creates the second kind of tension mentioned above. Because of the modernist environment in which he worked, his traditionalism constantly tempts the reader to take him for granted. Frost took advantage of this tendency to nurture a public image which helped him stake out his poetic territory. By playing the role of the New England bard, he plays off the nineteenth century American tradition, not only to make it new, but to make it. This first encounter wins him the position from which he confronts living in the twentieth century. He can be read simply, and enjoyed (at least in his best work), and he would not dismiss the reader for whom "The Death of the Hired Man" is no more than a good sad story. But of the reader who seeks a richer understanding, he demands a willingness to sustain complex attitudes and perceptions, to keep hold of the earth even while straining toward the stars. I "like the middle way," he said in a 1923 interview, "as I like to talk to the man who walks the middle way with me." To balance oneself in the middle way is to be fully human. It helps to be versed in country things. In them we find not only the knowledge that the impersonal and irresistible workings of nature grind all human things back to the soil from which they came, but also the recognition that consciousness creates a condition which separates man from nature and demands a continuous effort to wrest "a momentary stay" against the process. So by keeping to the middle way, by insisting on the absolute necessity of making do with the limitations available, Frost paradoxically affirms from first to last the tragic dignity and heroism of everyday life. And that affirmation—all the stronger because it is made in the face of the same chaos that sent Yeats to the spirits and Eliot to church—sets Frost apart from the modern tradition out of which he springs. He is, as it were, the west-running brook of modern poetry. (pp. 332-33)
Randolph Perazzini, in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1977, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Spring, 1977.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
Coming in his final collection, In the Clearing, "Accidentally on Purpose" is a philosophical dispensation for the aged Frost. As such, it describes the fundamental uncertainty that underlies his post-romantic individuality. He admits the universe is "but the Thing of things, / The things but balls all going round in rings," but attributes to "They" the belief that "all was rolling blind / Till accidentally it hit on mind"; that, in fact, "the Omnibus / Had no real purpose till it got to us."
The fourth stanza indicates what appears, at first glance, to be Frost's denial of such a view: "Never believe it. At the very worst / It must have had the purpose from the first / To produce purpose as the fitter bred: / We were just purpose coming to a head." Considered in light of the earlier poetry, how are we to take this admonition to "Never believe it"? Has the poet gleamed some producer of purpose outside himself, or is he only offsetting "their" theory with one of his own design? Does he mean never believe those who claim there is no real purpose because they are wrong, or is he in fact saying never believe such a truth because—to echo Eliot in "Burnt Norton"—"human kind / Cannot bear very much reality"? At least two things favor this second view. First of all, being "the very worst" suggests that Frost's theory is merely one explanation among several possibilities. That he chooses the worst indicates not a willingness to believe its truthfulness, but only a crusty refusal to entertain the opposing view. Furthermore, his attitude in the next stanza implies an utter indifference towards the truth; he would leave to "scientific wits" to find out whose purpose it was, while asserting: "Grant me intention, purpose, and design—/ That's near enough for me to the Divine."
The difference between this position which grants "intention, purpose, and design" and that which imagines "all was rolling blind / Till accidentally it hit on mind" is psychological rather than philosophical: Frost has compensated his realization of the accidental nature of the universe with a simple statement of disbelief. That disbelief represents a darkly romantic response to an ontological point of view which would, if sustained, elevate the individual to the role of creator, while at the same time destroying the essential meaning of his creation. More than this, the disbelief provides the basis for an uncertainty which signalizes the poet's move from romanticism towards existentialism.
Robert B. Thompson, "Frost's 'Accidentally on Purpose'," in The Explicator (copyright © 1978 by Helen Dwight Reed Educational Foundation), Winter, 1978, p. 17.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632
Frost considered "Kitty Hawk" the most important of his later poems, and on speaking engagements around the country often cited this passage as a culminating statement of his natural philosophy. It is a buoyant endorsement of the via affirmativa, reminiscent in principle of Whitman's progressive ideal, though Frost's clipped verse line discourages comparison with the bard of the pioneers. (p. 42)
Though Frost, true to type, recommends that his public hasten in "getting thought expressed," he waited till the end of his career before writing the poem of Kitty Hawk. He tried once, in the 1930's, but after much whittling and revision, "The Wrights' Biplane" emerged as an undistinguished four line epigram. (p. 43)
Frost guides the reader of "Kitty Hawk" toward the awareness that he had reached by the time of composition. The authorial voice has the colloquial playfulness of Frost's lyrics, but it has also an insistent force of elevated diction unique even in the late work. A poem containing references to "Alastor," "Raleigh," "Götterdämmerung," "Lilliputians," "Catullus," and the "mens animi" and which uses words like aliquid, nomenclature, apropos, and epithet seeks an audience accustomed to abstract thought and wide reading about matters of cultural significance. Frost's theme lies beyond the reach of untutored simplicity. Faced with the complexity of an historical imperative, Frost reaches deliberately for a higher order of word and thought, as Crane did in his long historical poem. (p. 45)
In "Kitty Hawk" Frost exchanges the spatial metaphors. The poet is depicted as inescapably egocentric. The range of his concern cannot easily extend beyond the immediate circumference of his beloved objects, whose compelling reality contains his vision and cinches it close. "The universe may or may not be very immense," Frost writes in "Skeptic,"
As a matter of fact there are times when I am apt
To feel it close in tight against my sense
Like a caul in which I was born and still am wrapped.
The poet is the real skeptic, more often setting boundaries than transcending them. Metrical and rhyming patterns are examples of formal limitations he gladly imposes on himself, and though these are, in a sense, risks of spirit in substantiation, they contrast to the risks of the Understanding as it constructs mechanical wings for longer journeys deeper into the undefined.
"Kitty Hawk" is a kind of belated penance which Frost offers to share with his reading public. Poet and audience alike lack the true or prophetic understanding of historical events because both have been insufficiently trained in the quotidian coping ("Action is the word") of a frontier people…. Meditative it is not (Frost delights in the rhyme of meditation and stagnation); Americans more often seek to know the spiritual meaning of an event long after it has passed into history. History is an unending process, however, and even the poetic reconsideration remains of practical use. "Kitty Hawk" is also a warning to the nation which stands in 1953 upon the brink of penetration into the infinities. Frost of course endorses the aims of the space program…. (pp. 47-8)
Writing "Kitty Hawk" at the end of his career, Frost, his nation's unofficial Poet Laureate, aligned his vision with the orthodox American view of social evolution. Poets remain earthbound, yearning to penetrate out far and in deep. But in fact science, our greatness, can best play the heroic role which Fate has given the superior in spirit…. Those aptly named mechanics on Kill Devil Hill did win a race against the poet, and, in a larger sense, against poetry itself, but by saying so in 1953 Frost at least outran the astronauts, planting the Imagination's soiled flag in advance. (p. 49)
Laurence Goldstein, "'Kitty Hawk' and the Question of American Destiny," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1978, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 9, No. 1 (Winter, 1978), pp. 41-9.
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