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.)
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...
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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).
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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