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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 as its simplistic philosophy and form. However, Frost's best poems explore fundamental questions of existence, depicting with a chilling starkness the loneliness of the individual confronted with an indifferent universe. Frost received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry four times. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9, 10, 13.)
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[A Boy's Will] is a little raw, and has in it a number of infelicities; underneath them it has the tang of the New Hampshire woods, and it has just this utter sincerity. It is not post-Miltonic or post-Swinburnian or post-Kiplonian. This man has the good sense to speak naturally and to paint the thing, the thing as he sees it. And to do this is a very different matter from gunning about for the circumplectious polysyllable. (p. 1)
He has now and then a beautiful simile, well used, but he is for the most part [simple]…. He is without sham and without affectation. (p. 2)
Ezra Pound, "'A Boy's Will'," in Poetry (© 1913 by The Modern Poetry Association; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and New Directions, Agents for the Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust), Vol. II, No. 2, May, 1913 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: The Critical Reception, edited by Linda W. Wagner, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977, pp. 1-2).
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[There is] a lack of "poetic" figures and phrases in [North of Boston]: a lack of regard for the outlines and fragility of the medium, a lack of finesse, of nicely rounded rhetoric or raptures. But although these are all the property and perquisites of even the greatest poets, Mr. Frost neglects them—and still writes poetry. I cannot recall a single obviously "poetic" line in "A Hundred Collars" or "The Self-Seeker"—to take two dissimilar poems—and yet the sum total of these two is undeniably poetic. In no particular thing that has been said, but rather in retrospect, the after-glow, is it most apparent. The effect rather than the statement is poetry; the air is almost electric with it.
Not that Mr. Frost cannot write colorful and sharp images. He can and does. But only when the mood rises to demand them: they are not dragged in by the hair or used as a peg to hang a passage on. (p. 25)
There is another thing that poetry can do and that Mr. Frost's work does. And that is to crystallize. Poetry is removed from prose not only because it tells a thing more nobly but more quickly…. And so when Robert Frost tells a story or sketches a character, the use of the poetic line gives it a clarity that is made sharper by its brevity. (pp. 25-6)
[These] poems glow with their honest, first-hand apprehension of life. It is New England life that is here: the atmosphere and idiom of it. The color, and for that matter the absence of color, is as faithfully reproduced as is that of the Arran Islands in the plays of Synge and the racy Paris slang in the ballades of Villon. Behind the persons in these poems one can feel a people. Often this sense of character is keenest when the person is suggested rather than drawn. Now that I think of it, it occurs to me that some of Mr. Frost's finest characterizations do not speak: they do not even appear….
On the other hand, take, as an example of pure delineative power, the first brief poem. In "Mending Wall" you have, in two pages, the gait, the impress, the very souls of two people. The poem is in the first person and in the alternate whimsy and a something like natural anarchy one gets a full-length portrait of one. The other person has just one line—repeated: but the portrait is no less full. He is drawn as completely as though the artist had put in every wrinkle and trouser-crease…. And it is after one has put the volume down that the power of these people persists—and becomes something bigger. One feels that one has perceived beneath the opposition of two men the struggle of two forces as primal as Order and Revolution….
Mr. Frost would be the first to disclaim any vatic intentions. At least I hope he would for his power lies not alone in his directness, but in his avoidance of making his figures and landscapes metaphysical, symbolic or in any way larger than they are. For sheer dramatic feeling I know few scenes tenser than "The Fear," with its vague, suggestive background. Nor do I know many novels disclosing the brooding insanity that springs from the stark and lonely rigors of farm life, as well as "A Servant to Servants." There's humor in Frost, too…. [These] poems should be read in batches and out loud. Most poems should, for that matter, but these, particularly, because of their colloquial flow and their conversational give-and-take, call for the tongue. And, incidentally, the nasal twang, if one can manage it. (p. 26)
Louis Untermeyer, "'North of Boston'," in Chicago Evening Post, April 23, 1915 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: The Critical Reception, edited by Linda W. Wagner, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977, pp. 24-7).
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More than anything perhaps [the title poem of "New Hampshire"] resembles a journey across country in the company of a wise, shrewd, humorous person with an uncommon gift of common speech…. And at the end of the journey—or rather when the horse stops, for there is a lot more to see, we have been across a whole state, and overheard a race of men, and been amused, and informed, and disillusioned, and enchanted. The voice which talks to us does so in an easy, unhurried monotone, never dull, never lifted, never strained; now it is speaking prose, now doggerel, now verse, now poetry. (pp. 58-9)
Maybe this is not [all] poetry. But does that matter? Or does it matter very much that so many of Mr. Frost's lines sound as if they had been overheard in a telephone booth….
"New Hampshire" is just like an old, wandering stone wall. Made of human hands, it rests in the ground, or is partly buried there; it is never the same height in any two places…. So bends and wanders Mr. Frost's pithy, moving, garrulous, and invulnerable poem….
Whatever Mr. Frost says, he means. Even his most prosaic lines are intended so to be…. His matter of factness in saying just what he means is a part of his virtue of never trying to say more than he means. If he doesn't use as much precious stone as we would like him to, if he uses too many plain ordinary boulders to fill in the chinks, it is because he knows that's the proper way to build his kind of a wall…. (p. 59)
[His] restraint, at its worst, verges upon caution; at its best, it produces clear and lovely poetry. Mr. Frost is a perfect example of the difference between reticence and reserve. He never holds back true feeling for fear of giving rein to false. He will tell you how fast his heart is beating, but he will not wear it upon his sleeve….
All this applies to the Robert Frost of the title poem and the Notes. The Frost of the Grace Notes is a very different matter. Instead of the leisurely conversational pentameter straying over acres of time and country we have a number of delicate, economical, well-rounded poems, in the good old sense, poems with just and inevitable rhyme, with fragile cadences, with quick turns, with swift changes of mood. The stone wall architect has, in most of these poems, disappeared to give place to a sure and skilful jeweller. It is not so much that in these poems Mr. Frost has turned to another method. He has moved, emotionally, much closer to his subject. He is feeling things in a different way, which requires and inspires a different expression. The author of "New Hampshire" and the author of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are the same man, but in the latter case he is expressing emotion and not emotion plus amusement, interest, curiosity all at the same time. (p. 60)
Robert Littell, "Stone Walls and Precious Stones," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1923 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 37, No. 470, December 5, 1923 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: The Critical Reception, edited by Linda W. Wagner, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977, pp. 58-60).
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Certain pages of ["West-Running Brook"] remain for me, after several attempts to find more in them than meets the eye, trivial; and certain others are merely good enough. But at least five poems here have all of their author's unique excellence, which is to say that they are not to be compared with the poems of any other living man, and to say that they give an absolute, almost undiscussable pleasure.
These few do not include, though they come near doing so, any of the several epigrams in which Mr. Frost may be seen taking a swing through universals. I suspect that he cannot afford extreme brevity, any more than he can afford great length; and universals (directly stated) are not for him. Neither do they include the one dialogue of the volume, which incidentally is the title-poem. And certainly they do not include any of the half-dozen pieces which are but conceits, even if these conceits have the pure mark of Mr. Frost's mind upon them. But they do include the poems which represent Mr. Frost in the act of standing and looking at some very definite thing—a pool in the spring woods, a chimney smoking under the new moon, the water coming in off the Pacific, a bird going to bed, or a "winter garden in an alder swamp"—standing and looking at it and talking about it in such a way that it suddenly and weirdly becomes a world.
The thing is done so quietly, and sometimes in lines of such bald, even awkward clarity, that one cannot say how it is done. But it is done—in "Once by the Pacific," for instance, where the coming of the waves against the shore takes on the ominous importance of all force whatsoever; in the "Cocoon," where a poor house smoking silently in the evening haze becomes a creature spinning its anchor to the earth and moon; and in "Acceptance," where birds settling after sunset into their dark nests quite sufficiently express the comfort there is in all darkness, and in the need no longer to think.
It is done even better in ['Spring Pools" and "A Winter Eden"] which, fitly enough, have winter or late spring for their time and the unpeopled woods for their scene. For Mr. Frost is a northerly poet, and his paradise—he is concerned almost wholly with paradise—is a wintry one. (p. 76)
Mark Van Doren, "North of Eden," in The Nation (copyright 1929 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. CXXVIII, No. 3316, January 23, 1929 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: The Critical Reception, edited by Linda W. Wagner, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977, pp. 76-7).
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The bulk of [Frost's] poetry is a dialogue in which the two speakers are Robert Frost himself and the entity which we call nature or process. It is a dialogue in which Frost puts a variety of questions to the natural world that lies just beyond his doorstep and receives a variety of answers. They are answers that an ethically curious person like Frost can profit by. Whether he—and we—are meant to profit by them, whether the replies and the chance instructions that come to man from nature are fortuitous blows or carefully planted clues: this is not always important to Frost. That man may well find his relevancies in the irrelevancies of process is a possibility that does not often disturb Frost.
But … this peaceful dialogue between Frost and nature—this peaceful flow of New England information from snow-crust to sheet of paper—has of late decades been interrupted, has been intruded upon by another sort of dialogue. (pp. 105-06)
[If nature] is solely a succession of particular events or facts (as it is in much of Frost's verse) or—when generalized—is just the drift of process, and if we have no secret links with it because of a common creation, we cannot presume to guide [as suggested in the poem "Riders"]…. But at times Frost suggests that we should so presume.
It is this possibility of guiding as well as riding that leads to the interruption of the man-process dialogue that is normative in Frost. Yet one must confess that this vein is but one among the many aspects of the confrontation of man with nature, as Frost manages it. Frost may sometimes speak for man. He may lament the abandoned woodpile and the house taken over by nature …, and he may shape a fable or myth in which the wind is taught song by man …. But the road that aspect of the dialogue would seem to point to is, in Frost's phrase, "a road not taken"—or, if taken, not taken with the seriousness with which Frost travels his preferred road. Frost cannot escape his favorite conversation; humanity keeps breaking in. (pp. 107-08)
The conflict comes to this. In one direction—that of the man-process dialogue—there is a various and flexible accumulation of insight; in another direction—that of what we shall call the man-society dialogue—there is, when evasion is impossible, the cherishing of fixed, predetermined stereotypes rather than the continuation of sympathetic attention that we should hope to see. This is the division that keeps Frost from following up what his perceptions about the common origin of process and society point to…. Process is the vehicle of all the meaning that man has any chance of taking unto himself. Man's experience of man-in-society is a second-rate sort of experience. And so, by easy extension, is man's experience of God-in-society a poor substitute for whatever divine traces of purpose one can isolate in process. (p. 108)
Therefore, when Frost is forced to turn his attention from process to society, he feels that he is in the presence of material that is of little intrinsic interest and of even less authority over his own spirit….
The point at which Frost might have moved on to society—and at the same time deepening his dialogue with process—was a touchy point. It was the point at which the metaphysical becomes more than a momentarily perceived turn of dialogue. Frost, one may judge, is determined to allow the metaphysical no more honor than that of being a momentarily perceived turn of dialogue. He is willing to note a fleeting perception of drift or—just as often—design in process; but he is studiedly incurious as to what one may make of such perceptions. (p. 109)
Frost does not bring to bear on our troubled human society the kind of attention he gives generously to process. Instead, he begins a new dialogue.
I should like to make clear in what territory this new dialogue is displayed. It appears only occasionally in the earlier poems…. The dialogue appears with frequency in A Witness Tree and Steeple Bush and in the two plays which Frost calls "masques": A Masque of Reason and A Masque of Mercy. To be sure, in these collections are many poems in which the old dialogue persists, with the precise limitations of curiosity we have noted. I insist on no more than this: that whenever Frost turns to a consideration of man in society, he eschews the profits of his earlier conversation with nature. (p. 110)
Frost shows skepticism for all human effort, or he may offer some human effort an as-if acceptance. The skepticism appears in the sort of poem that appears in A Witness Tree and Steeple Bush; the as-if acceptance appears chiefly in the two "masques." Neither attitude represents more than endurance of a necessary evil. (The dialogue with process was a pursuit—a very great pursuit—of a possible good.) It is as though Frost is saying of society; this necessary evil, "Well, if you must hanker to find a place for man, for yourself even, in society, these are some of the old accounts." The dialogue with process was a various account of first-hand contact; what we have to note now is Frost's sorting of hearsay about man and his purely human fate. It is a sorting forced upon Frost by the urgencies of his time. But it is one that takes him away from the proper study of mankind: nature or process.
This break need not have taken place had Frost been willing to let process speak to him fully of metaphysics as well as of "practical" human problems. Metaphysics of some sort—and I do not mean anything authoritative, ambitious, and systematic—could have annealed the far too clean break between natural process and social development that Frost early made. Some degree of philosophic insight could have suggested that society, like process, was capable of conversation various and soaring, depressing or frustrating—and pointed. (p. 111)
Whenever one catches Frost in a dialogue with society, one must perceive that much of his effort goes to keep himself from getting "bogged down." What he strives to create is not a just apprehension of what he faces; his greatest labor goes to keeping open a safe avenue of retreat to that other and more important conversation. (p. 114)
Instead of listening to and watching human society as sharply as possible (it would seem to us to deserve at least as much attention as the new apple tree or the dried-up brook), we are to listen to society, to watch it, with only a careless and detached indulgence. This attitude is sufficient to reveal to us the contradictions and ambiguities that will sanction amused tolerance. This attitude does not urge us farther, to see the drive or drift of human history that makes it, to many men at least, as absorbing as natural process, as full of confused instruction as the passage of winter into spring.
Frost's poems in this category are witty and urbane, as a person will find when he reads through A Witness Tree and Steeple Bush. But they are both slight and journalistic in tone. Why should they not be? "Birches" and "Tree at My Window" are the products of loving attention; the poems we now speak of are the off-hand records of attention grudgingly given. "Grudgingly" is not too strong a word. Frost contrasts the truly firm roundness of the physical globe with the inferior globe that is human society. (pp. 114-15)
Birth and death and the process-conditioned tensions between couples isolated on run-down farms: these are the human themes that Frost can take up. And they are not contemptible. But they are all concerned with sustaining a dignified human stance in the face of natural process. Frost is not very curious about the onerous task of maintaining a dignified stance in the midst of societies and customs that man himself has made and is making. Here Frost's low estimate of this portion of experience intervenes, and he gives us no companion piece to match his pictures of man facing up to snowstorm and drouth. (p. 115)
We must note here Frost's estimate of that barely tolerable efflorescence of city life and factory: national government. Frost would … say that that government is best which governs not at all, which makes no demands on our attention. Frost holds against the United States government of the thirties and forties not only its interference in human affairs. He resents its pervasive propaganda for this interference….
The accents vary, but the point is the same. The immediate pressures of nature put healthful limits on the social imagination or fancy that must deploy itself in the country. One cannot "plan" winter or seedtime; and one can appeal to this limitation to justify one's lack of sympathy with attempts to reshape the social and economic structure of a great nation. The view that a nation should be more than a reflection of natural process—that its emergent shape should bear the marks not of spontaneous and unthinking process but of human choice operating among a variety of possibilities—is antipathetic to Frost. (p. 116)
Frost's skepticism toward history, political and cultural, displays similar marks. To plan a society or to profit from the events that have overtaken other societies—both acts fall into the same condemnation…. Occasionally this skepticism is tempered by a natural piety toward men who have existed…. But this piety, it should be noted, extends only to the fact that men did exist, did strive, did drive their chariots along a certain path that Frost now walks along. But this piety does not extend to the products of the efforts of earlier man. It does not ask us to assess the value of the precise objects earlier men made, the precise wisdom that they drew from strife and existence. The cave man and Pericles and the neighbor down the New Hampshire roadside are peers; and the cave man and the neighbor have the edge on Pericles since their existence has vague, undifferentiated meaning; whereas the existence of Pericles amounted to an assertion of this human good and not that. (pp. 117-18)
[To] the questions about eternity that man has woven in with the questions about the good society and the meaning of history, Frost makes reply [in "A Steeple on the House"] like a man who carelessly lifts up a handful of sand, which he then lets run through his fingers.
What if it should turn out eternity
Was but the steeple on our house of life …?…
No one ever really uses the belfry of a church; and the most we need concede to the belfry and to what is popularly associated with it is this:
A spire and belfry coming on the roof
Means that a soul is coming on the flesh.
The sober point of [A Masque of Reason and A Masque of Mercy]—a point that is not binding since Frost must keep his avenue of escape open—is some observation, of general import, about social, nonprocess experience. Frost concedes [in the first play] that Job had his trial but wishes to suggest that the point of the trial as most men take it—that Job's story is an account of man's apprenticeship to faith—is not the only one. Frost shows that the Job-experience freed God from the need to be reasonable, from having to provide men with their just desserts. A similar irony, arrived at by turning the accepted versions inside out, appears in A Masque of Mercy. Jonah was sent to inflict justice on a godless people; what Frost's Jonah is really distressed by is his suspicion, confirmed by Frost's Paul, that God's angry prophet cannot trust God to remain unmerciful.
In both plays the central points are sophisticated, as if to assert at every turn that the drama proceeds on an as-if basis…. Particularly in A Masque of Mercy does the variety of persons allow Frost to view more freely, more sympathetically and yet without commitment, some slightly shaded stereotypes uttered concerning human problems. But when, after a quite theological debate, the Keeper (of the shop) speaks,
My failure is no different from Jonah's
We both have lacked the courage in the heart
To overcome the fear within the soul
And go ahead to any accomplishment….
Fear, significantly, is not the child of the unknown in these two plays; it is the offspring of the mind, which looks for and dreads the undeviating workings of justice; and courage, conveniently said to be of the heart, is more closely allied with process than with society and its often overexplicit "rational" explanations of how the human universe works. (p. 120)
Frost is first-rate when he deals with problems, with experiences, that he is persuaded are first-rate. He is, in some of his later work, hasty and even colorless and abstract when he deals with what he has persuaded himself is the inferior half of the discontinuity he has set up—when he feels that the really important dialogue has been cut across by what is little more than chatter or, as he himself would say, "talk talk."
Yet, as already pointed out, his own poetry contains clues pointing to a different sort of attention. Thus, in "Lucretius versus the Lake Poets," he ridicules an academic debate during which the theory has been advanced that nature is no more than "pretty scenery." Frost remarks:
For I thought Epicurus and Lucretius
By Nature meant the Whole Goddam Machinery….
If one is to take a phrase like this seriously, one is not free to dismiss part of life as pretty scenery and part (the social part) as almost empty dialogue. True, society and man and ideas are rich sources of obscurity. But they are also part of the "Whole Goddam Machinery"; they are cogs that really do mesh with the parts that Frost singles out for his respectful study. Yet Frost's most deeply held belief amounts to no less than this: that there is a part of the "machinery" that is real and instructive to man and a part that is not. His choice commits him to a humanism that is sensitive and, in its own way, compassionate. But it is also a humanism which seeks to put the poet and his talents only obliquely in the service of a mankind in which the poet has a distinctly limited and ironical trust. The limitation and irony are not well-founded unless one grants Frost's assumption: that a part of the machine that is the universe really works and that another part—society, thought, history—grinds emptily, century after century. (pp. 121-22)
Harold H. Watts, "Robert Frost and the Interrupted Dialogue," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1955 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 27, No. 1, March, 1955 (and reprinted in Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by James M. Cox, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 105-22).
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Different as [Frost and Eliot] are in many ways, and though Frost conducted a kind of private war with Eliot, it is possible to discern interesting resemblances beneath the obvious contrasts. In both men the central theme is metaphysical desolation. Both poets are profoundly at odds with the current of secular optimism flowing from the enlightenment through the nineteenth century. Frost's New England landscape, spare, hard, and usually unyielding, inhabited by its declining Yankee stock, can be taken as an extended metaphor expressive of that desolation. In Frost's poetry the central persona or dramatic voice speaking the poems finds ways to live with that desolation. In Eliot's poetry the central persona lives through and finally beyond the desolation.
Both Frost and Eliot were in the broad sense of the word conservatives, though of very different kinds…. [At] bottom [Frost's] conservatism had to do with both the valid claims of the self and his sense of limits, limits of near but not altogether complete intractability…. In contrast to Eliot the central figure in Frost does not "develop." Instead he increases in solidity and weight through a kind of dramatic accumulation. The drama consists of his changing relationship to those limits. The limits are real; that is the unutopian donnée. But there are moments when he gets past or through them.
In Frost the voice of reason and of skepticism is paramount, the "sound of sense"; but Eliot is a thaumaturge, mesmerizing us with mysteries and incantations, the "sense of sound." He once remarked that poetry began with a savage beating a drum in a jungle, and for all of its learning one senses the presence of the primitive in Eliot's poetry. (pp. 425-27)
Beginning in 1923 with the collection New Hampshire, Frost conducted a kind of literary guerrilla warfare against Eliot. If Frost took the offensive, however, he was also engaged in defensive operations, designed to defend the validity of his own poetry. Frost plainly believed in 1923 that he had to offer a rejoinder to the author of The Waste Land, which had been published in 1922 and had immediately become one of the most influential works of the modern movement….
New Hampshire is Frost's answer to Eliot's desert.
The notes Eliot appended to his poem were of course notorious; the second section of Frost's volume, following the long title poem, consists of shorter poems with the collective designation Notes. In the first edition the title poem contained footnotes referring to the later poems. Frost seems to be implying several things here, playfully but also seriously. That he is a poet, not a pedant. That "New Hampshire," in contrast to the desert, "gives birth": the poems included as Notes often amplify some theme or incident in the title poem. (p. 427)
Other poems in the New Hampshire volume glance unmistakably at Eliot. "Wild Grapes" is a kind of rewriting of the earlier poem "Birches" with an Eliotic rebirth theme woven in. The poem playfully glances at the myths. Frost's sacred wood lies in New Hampshire…. Poem after poem in New Hampshire carries this resonance, even such an unlikely candidate as "The Pauper Witch of Grafton." The Waste Land is full of sexual defeat. That is its subject, both in itself and as a metaphor for a larger sterility. In "The Pauper Witch of Grafton" Frost in effect replies that he can write a triumphant poetry of sexual fulfillment….
["New Hampshire"] as a whole is immensely rich. Frost fashions the state of New Hampshire before our eyes into a poetic world of many modes and many voices, a poetic quarry from which the subsequent poems are drawn, a quarry of apparently inexhaustible resources. In its central section Frost addresses himself to the subject of New Hampshire's mountains—the opposite of a desert flatland. (p. 429)
He goes on to consider, and reject as far as he is concerned, several common accounts of the nature of art. He suggests that the idea of enlarging the mountains originated in a mistake on an old map, "the sad accident of having seen/Our actual mountains given in a map/Of early times as twice the height they are." A large creative act, we understand, can be triggered by trivia, by accident. Our attention thus naturally shifts away from the trivial occasion to the creative act itself, which, with a dramatic heightening of the tone, blank verse turning to rhyme, Frost performs before our eyes:
Whereas I never had a good idea
About improving people in the world,
Here I am over-fertile in suggestion,
And cannot rest from planning day or night
How high I'd thrust the peaks in summer snow
To tap the upper sky and draw a flow
Of frosty night air on the vale below,
Down from the stars to freeze the dew as starry.
Here he steps forward explicitly as the creator of his own poetic world. His "New Hampshire" is not the actual state but a poetic artifact. We see him creating part of it. That pun on the poet's name—a "flow/Of frosty night air"—is surely intentional. There is a chill in Frost's poetry and he knows it; that chill is the imaginative signature Frost. He embodies it here in his symbolic myth of his own art. To the heat of Eliot's symbolic desert, burning, burning, Frost offers by way of contrast the cold summer snows of those imagined mountains.
In the final section of "New Hampshire" Frost gives us his declaration of independence as a poet, and he defines the persona which will be and has been its dramatic expression. He rejects both the inhibitions of the older genteel tradition and the newer fashion on wallowing in misery. (pp. 430-31)
Surely it is the point of Frost that he precisely refuses to be terrifying; his refusal is virtually programmatic. Terror, at least in literature, is—though not comforting—at least enhancing. Literary terrorism moves us and thrills us, and as it does so it confers a certain sort of stature. The circumstance or the person capable of generating terror becomes through that very capacity dramatic, important, striking. But Frost refuses us this experience. He stops just short, points, and draws back. In so drawing back he forces us to confront something in its own way worse than terror. There is a bleakness, a barrenness in Frost which corresponds to something bleak and barren in the American reality, sensed not only in the dying Yankee culture which is the subject of his poetry, but with equal intensity in a Los Angeles suburb or the plains of the Midwest…. (p. 433)
Frost's refusal, sensed everywhere in his poetry, to comfort us with something grand, with the purgation of terror and tragedy, is connected with his skepticism and his rationalism, though these are to be understood as habits of mind, not anything systematic; hence this frame of mind constitutes a kind of chastity of the imagination. Temperamentally he is rooted very much in the eighteenth century, that eighteenth-century New England with its spare white churches and chaste classical façades as well as the Lockean eighteenth century with its distrust of enthusiasm and its analytic suspicion of similarities, analogies, metaphors…. The chill of reason is always there, the Frostian chill, and he is aware of the pun. There is always the cooling touch of humor or irony, or perhaps a single deflating word. Consider one of his characteristic "dark" poems, "Desert Places," which might be cited to sustain the claim that Frost is a "terrifying" poet. The scene is the familiar one of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," but here the falling snow and the gathering night possess none of the real if also sinister attractiveness that they have in that poem. The whiteness gradually covering the earth is pure negation—repulsive, blank, and benighted. It has no expression, nothing to express; nature is alien, numbing, meaningless. (pp. 433-34)
The characteristic movement of skepticism and rationalism in Frost's poetry is back to earth. In "New Hampshire" Frost created a myth in which the "frosty" night air flows down to the vale below, "down from the stars to freeze the dew as starry." From the early "Trial by Existence" to the very last poems this insistence on the primacy of earth (as against the transcendent) is one of Frost's principal themes. It is fundamental to his imaginative differences with Eliot. The early and immensely popular "Birches," which can be read as a Frostian manifesto, glances toward transcendence, but then turns back to make room for a different kind of affirmation. (pp. 434-35)
The resistance to the metaphorical mode throughout the first part of ["Birches"] is important—indeed it is the subject of the poem: the Frostian skepticism will admit no easy beauties, and this skepticism prepares us for the emblematic passage which follows. The poet himself, we hear, was a swinger of birches when a boy, and now, when "weary of considerations" and when "life is too much like a pathless wood," he dreams of going back: "I'd like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over."
Frost's "pathless wood" in this poem can hardly fail to remind us of Dante. Frost too has been lost in that wood. He would like to get away from earth awhile—but only for awhile…. It is the point of the birches that they climb toward heaven, but also return the poet to earth, for "earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better." The skepticism is pervasive, and works both ways: he does not know where it is "likely" to go better. Issues of epistemology and probability lurk behind the line. We are in the mental climate of eighteenth-century skepticism, and among eighteenth-century philosophical issues; we think of Locke and Berkeley, and of Hume. And this eighteenth-century skepticism, this resistance to metaphor and analogy, takes on an ultimate importance in Frost, for all philosophical theology, all affirmation of connection between time and eternity, man and God, depends on some form of analogy: it gets us from here to there and back again. Despite his pervasive skepticism, and despite the experience evoked in the lines about the pathless wood, Frost does make his affirmation. Not only that "earth's the right place for love" but that, as in the childhood joys of swinging birches, earth enables us to climb "toward" heaven. (pp. 436-37)
Read in this way, "Birches" asserts the claims of Frost's skepticism and sense of human limits against the desire for transcendence and the sense of mysterious possibility. His goal is to wring a great poetry out of an irreducible minimum, to triumph over the possibility of desolation which is always present, and is never finally transcended. The triumph is in its way as impressive as Eliot's. (p. 437)
In such major poems as "After Apple-Picking," "West-Running Brook," and "For Once, Then, Something" Frost peers beyond the epistemological barriers, presses against Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein, and sees in a glass not altogether dark. We have seen the importance of barriers, the recognition of a sense of limits in Frost's poetry; but there is a countermovement as well, the dialectic set up between them which makes for much of the drama present in the poetry. This is particularly striking in those poems that are addressed to questions of ultimate meaning. The Frostian consciousness normally resides in the time-space continuum, and finds it extremely difficult to move behind or beyond the world of ordinary appearances. Sometimes however, while remaining drenched in skepticism, that consciousness catches through the epistemological veil glimpses of what may be a signal of transcendence. (p. 442)
In one of his last major poems, the mysterious and haunting "Directive" from Steeple Bush …, Frost returned once more to his oblique quarrel with Eliot. In New Hampshire … Frost had asserted his own claims against the author of The Waste Land. In "Directive" he takes on the author of Four Quartets and in particular of "Little Gidding," which had appeared in 1942.
It is illuminating to set the concluding lines of "Little Gidding" beside Frost's "Directive." The latter poem also records a quest; it too is a journey backward in time that ends with a clarification. In Eliot the abandoned Chapel Perilous of The Waste Land becomes the past-haunted chapel where prayers have been valid. Frost takes us not to a haunted chapel but to an abandoned and haunted farm, where the dead are felt as unseen presences. "Directive," like "Little Gidding," has its "children" and even its "apple tree." "Little Gidding" is thus very much present in "Directive," but present by way of contrast. The central image in "Little Gidding" is fire, the transformed fire of The Waste Land, the refining fire that in the last line becomes one with the rose of divine love. Ice provides the contrasting image in "Directive," the chill of Frost. We find it first in the lingering sense of the glacier's presence. The chill of the glacier and the hard realities of rock and iron assert themselves powerfully against the poetic analogy, in which the glacier "braced his feet against the Arctic Pole." The personification of the Glacier becomes just a manner of speaking. The claims of metaphor are chilled. (pp. 443-44)
Finally "Directive" is Frost's last manifesto on how to read him. The opening lines suggest one way: as the popular and beloved poet of a simpler rustic past, the spokesman for enshrined pieties, a kind of New England Sandburg. But the past was not simple, we learn later in the poem, and this poet knows that it was not. The prevailing sense of Frost as the national hand-holder is an error. At the end we come to the cold stream of the true poetry. That poetry is not simple either, nor is it topical or subject to fashion. It is "lofty and original." Pure, it escapes labels. Indeed that poetry now seems less dated than much identifiably "modernist" poetry. (pp. 445-46)
The signals of transcendence in Frost are intermittent and tend toward the ambiguous. The consciousness in Frost's poetry is resolutely individualistic. It discovers its truths on its own. It maintains those truths on its own. In terms of the sociology of knowledge this individualistic consciousness receives very little collective reinforcement. Its "plausibility structures" are all internal. (p. 446)
Jeffrey Hart, "Frost and Eliot," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 425-47.∗
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6224
While references to the "farmer poet," the "Yankee bard," and the "poet of New England" are now commonplace [in describing Frost], the exact significance of such terms remains obscure. (p. 4)
Despite a wealth of local lore, popular stereotypes, and scholarship in the area, we only have to sample a small portion of the material on Frost to realize that the region's fundamental character and its literary tradition are much in dispute. (p. 5)
So much controversy and confusion about Yankee character is a serious hindrance, especially when Frost's critics—antagonists and apologists alike—seem unwilling to recognize its existence. The problem is further compounded by the absence of reliable definitions of New England poetry. Everyone agrees that Frost wrote it, but in all the vast critical literature devoted to him it is impossible to find systematic analysis of the generic features that distinguish an actual New England poem. (pp. 6-7)
Although dating from 1913, when Frost was still an unknown poet living in a kind of self-imposed exile at Beaconsfield, England, "Mending Wall" is one of the ten or fifteen poems on which his reputation as a great New England author unquestionably rests. (p. 13)
The redoubtable, wall-loving neighbor, though figuring directly in only twelve of the forty-five lines, seems to dominate the poem because he is so conspicuously recognizable as a conventional Yankee. Laconic, sententious, hidebound, down-to-earth, he is imposing simply by virtue of his familiarity. In presenting his persona, on the other hand, Frost relied on distinctive language rather than stereotype, gradually revealing an anomalous individual whose central role as a sensitive, reflective observer is somewhat obscured by the immediate impressiveness of the obstinate neighbor.
While "Mending Wall" deserves its reputation as a regional masterpiece, its success depends chiefly on the speaker's voice. And this voice is central to Frost's greatest regional work. It is capable of carrying the reader forward through a succession of striking images, surprising and stimulating observations, and deeply felt emotions. But such an idiosyncratic voice can not be made to serve regional traits or local philosophy. On the contrary, it involves an element of fantasy, an occasional diffidence, and a touch of uncertainty. Frost's best poems center on a moment of doubt, a moment that gives depth and complexity to the work (as it does in "Mending Wall") by evincing the fragility of the persona's imaginative perception.
In contrast to this imaginative, meditative, uncertain observer, another persona appears frequently in Frost's work, with more self-confidence as well as more predictability. Not merely an observer of rural New England, this figure is also a spokesman for the region, a spokesman whom Frost first exploited fully in "Christmas Trees" and to whom he returned frequently thereafter. (pp. 25-6)
Unfortunately, while stressing the opposition of city and country in "Christmas Trees," Frost counts so heavily on his speaker's aura of Yankee virtue that the poem lapses into insipidity and predictability. Particularly in view of its occasional nature—from the subtitle, "A Christmas circular letter," to the direct, personal address to the reader in the closing lines—this work seems to be more self-indulgent, self-assertive, and self-glorifying than any of his previous poems. Never before had Frost created such a blatant advertisement for his own identity as a Yankee. The result is an unsuccessful poem. (p. 36)
By adopting the stance of the Yankee farmer, Frost committed himself to conventional poses and slighted his original, imaginative impulses. Despite his considerable skill at managing tone, innuendo, and dramatic characterization, his presentation of himself as countryman was ill-conceived and unrewarding. (pp. 36-7)
The contrast between "Christmas Trees" and "Mending Wall" shows that Frost's approach to New England was neither consistent nor infallible. Despite many surface similarities, these are radically different regional poems. (p. 38)
A central element in discussion of Frost's regional reputation has always been his practical experience on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire. In truth, the image of the Derry farmer has gained so much force over the years that it has become difficult to visualize this poet without his regional identity. Throughout his life, Frost cultivated a Derry myth—what [his biographer Lawrance Thompson] describes as a "mythic idyll of self-regenerating isolation"—and he did it well enough to divert readers from the difficulties and complexities of his background. To support the myth, he devised a personal history attributing his poetic development to his experiences in Derry between 1900 and 1909 and discounting the influence of his reading, previous education, and personal relationships. (p. 40)
In order to understand the unusual nature of Frost's association with New England we should not only reexamine his early years but also recognize that the Derry myth may be as meaningful for what it disguises and conceals about him as for what it ostensibly shows. A contemporary Orphic myth, it established a suitably bardic past and provided a sacred grove to sanctify his singing. But even as it invested him with a forceful and distinctive identity, it was also a way of repudiating—and simultaneously distracting attention from—the indecisive and undistinguished late-Romantic poet he had been until just a few years before his sudden rise to fame as the newly consecrated rustic bard of New England. (p. 41)
Prior to 1913 [Frost's] failure to develop solid critical judgment resulted in inconsistencies of style and an uncertain control of theme and imagery. But a still more serious consequence of his irresolution was his inability to appreciate the advances he made during and even before the Derry period. We can see in retrospect that when he worked on poems like "The Tuft of Flowers" in the late 1890s, "Mowing" around 1901, or "The Death of the Hired Man" and "An Old Man's Winter Night" in 1905 or 1906, he was moving away from Romantic habits—the vaguely derivative effusions, the conventionally heightened and melodized diction—he had cultivated during the nineties. But he failed to capitalize on his progress. Each movement toward vigorous and original language, toward vividly imagined experiences and emotions, was followed by other poems that, despite flashes of brilliance, seem less than worthy of Frost at his best.
"The Tuft of Flowers" is generally recognized as the earliest of Frost's distinctive regional poems. With its endstopped heroic couplets, its rather saccharine imagery and tidy moral, and its "'wildered butterfly … on tremulous wing" …, it is less subtle and original than his most impressive work. Yet it has a pristine simplicity, a naive musicality, and an epigrammatic inevitability that he surpassed only in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." (pp. 68-9)
In the context of Frost's poetic output during the 1890s, "The Tuft of Flowers" is especially noteworthy as an early experiment with regional material…. [His speaker, however,] though explicitly identified as a fieldworker, does not reflect a convincingly local sensitivity. The stilted, bookishly orotund language gives him away…. Nevertheless, compared with Frost's earlier sentimental love poems like "Warning" (1895) and "The Birds Do Thus" (1896), "The Tuft of Flowers" represents a step forward. It is an initial attempt to confront a Wordsworthian situation "from common life," and it focuses—though somewhat distantly and uncertainly—on a common man, the farmworker. (pp. 69-70)
His greatest attainment in "Mowing" was the virtual elimination of distance between his speaker and the regional world of the poem. Instead of parading the "poetical" voice he had cultivated during his years of apprenticeship, he struck boldly at the unadorned poetic power of human speech, aiming not to describe or comment, but to dramatize the personal engagement of a regional character in specific, rustic activity. (pp. 70-1)
Frost's lack of direction may have been the most important trait camouflaged by the Derry myth. Taken as a group, the poems of A Boy's Will  indicate that prior to the trip to England he had no clear, stable vision of his role as poet. (p. 76)
[The advance from A Boy's Will to North of Boston] involved an unprecedented synthesis of his lengthy apprenticeship to the tradition of nineteenth-century British poetry and his suddenly found appreciation for the literary potential of rural New England.
It was not a gain in poetic skill that enabled him to make such impressive development in a single year. He had long been an accomplished "lyrist," to use Emerson's term. What he had lacked, and what was painfully absent from A Boy's Will, was the "metre-making argument," the sense of purpose, the commanding point of view he finally acquired during his first year in England. This new perspective provided North of Boston with a depth and vigor often missing in regional literature, and it supplied a cohesive integrity found all too rarely in late-Romantic poetry. (pp. 87-8)
Frost's best work always involves at least a hint of the dramatic. The poems of North of Boston display an exceptional sensitivity to the tones, the rhythms, and the subtle inflections that give the human voice its suggestiveness and complexity, its emotional power and inherent poetic capacity. By studying the Yankee, and by paying attention to the voices and attitudes of rural characters, Frost developed the perspective that led to his rejection of Romantic lyricism and precipitated his realization that "the great fight of any poet is against the people who want him to write in a special language that has gradually separated from spoken language …"…. (p. 90)
In July 1913, while at work on the poems of North of Boston, the "Yank from Yankville," as Frost now styled himself …, began to conceptualize what his new literary identity was to be. The first of a series of brilliant letters developing his poetic theory was written on a marvelously symbolic date, the Fourth of July….
Citing Swinburne and Tennyson by name, he condemned poetic "effects in assonation," effects that are also common in the work of many of his youthful favorites—Poe, Keats, Shelley, Arnold—and, let us not forget, in the verse of the young Robert Frost. In declaring independence, he stressed his role as an innovator…. The innovative poems he wrote at that time show the influence of his commitment:
I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense…. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form….
[Frost] brought to the "colloquial tradition" a rich experience in a highly dissimilar mode. It was this complexity, not merely his identification with a particular tradition, that enabled him to produce the original and powerful poetry of North of Boston.
This book, produced during a period of intellectual ferment and artistic growth, is frequently cited as Frost's best. Many critics feel that aside from containing more major poems than any of his other collections, it is his most effectively unified and sustained work. The source of all these strengths was the poet's newly developed sensitivity to his regional background. His concern with speech patterns and the sound of rural voices invests the book with great dramatic force. Additionally, his interest in the meaning of his own experience in the farm country of New England led him to unify the book not only by careful arrangement of its seventeen poems and skillful orchestration of its themes, conflicts, and images, but also by establishing a consistent point of view toward the region: the point of view of a sensitive, meditative observer. (p. 101)
As Frost developed his first extended treatment of New England, he did not attempt to write in the person of the Yankee farmer. He drew instead on his own experience as an outsider in Derry. North of Boston portrays rural life, but it also evokes a specific observer located in the regional setting, who seems to wonder whether he belongs there. Because of his role as observer, he stands somewhat apart from those he studies, and he finds himself susceptible to feelings of isolation and alienation. By conveying these feelings, Frost achieved an artistic depth and complexity often lacking in regional literature, and he transcended the predictability and chauvinism that afflict many New England authors. (p. 103)
The speaker [of "The Pasture," the poem that provides the introduction to North of Boston,] invites us to join him in his study of the regional environment, but we must go on his terms. Rather than inviting us into a pastoral world, he asks us to share his exploration—a much more uncertain and ambiguous experience. "The Pasture" does not promise, nor does North of Boston provide, the moral lessons and didactic social commentary of conventional regional literature. It would be a mistake to expect that the stone walls and woodpiles, the farms and mountains, the hired men and farm people will be interpreted or explained to us. We must go, as Frost's speaker goes, to observe and reflect on rural New England. (p. 108)
As initial chapters or components of North of Boston, "The Pasture" and "Mending Wall" establish a raison d'être for the entire collection: they introduce the implied author, display his penchant for observation, and demonstrate his characteristic role as an outsider who is both disturbed and fascinated by an environment he can neither change nor fully accept. By letting the persona speak in the first person while presenting basic themes and conflicts in these two opening poems, Frost establishes a context for the objectively narrated piece that follows, "The Death of the Hired Man." (p. 109)
Frost s masterful presentation of the voices in "The Death of the Hired Man" carries forward and builds on the dramatic tension implicit in "The Pasture" and "Mending Wall." On the one hand, Warren exemplifies the stern, pragmatic, down-to-earth confidence that comes from living in accordance with local customs and standards. He speaks with assurance, and his concern is with matters of economy, productivity, and usefulness….
Mary's voice, on the other hand, has much in common with the persona's in the preceding poems. She speaks defensively and apologetically, as if aware that her expression of sympathetic feelings for Silas violates (as indeed it does) widely accepted standards. Her imagination and her emotions distinguish her from her husband and add to the tension that invigorates their dialogue. (p. 110)
Along with Warren and Mary, the poem's other two characters, Silas and Harold Wilson, establish a broad range or spectrum of roles and relationships in the environment north of Boston. They provide a commentary on the book's implied author, a context in which his utterances and his perspectives take on new significance. (p. 112)
After such a somber, yet graceful and exquisitely crafted poem, Frost shifts effectively to one of North of Boston's lightest and most understated pieces. In "The Mountain" he presents his persona in a new role, but one that the preceding poems have anticipated. Here he is clearly a tourist, and as he recounts his first visit to a rural town, we see his observer's sensitivity. (p. 114)
In the "larger design" of North of Boston, "After Apple-Picking" reaffirms the persona's deep sensitivity to his surroundings and thus strengthens the cogency of the entire collection as a record of his experience. The emotional and imaginative pattern of this poem encourages us, as we read the rest of the book, to reflect on the impact of the region, with its particular scenes and characters, on an observer so susceptible to suggestion, to dream, and to fantasy. Indeed, we can "see what will trouble" his sleep, for as the book draws to its close, we are reminded that his is not a world of orchards and pastures only. There is a social world, too, composed of men and women who struggle unsuccessfully to live and work together. (p. 127)
We can see in retrospect that by turning his attention to his Yankee background and running his mind on rusticity during the spring and summer of 1913, Frost came up with material for a book that displays his full powers and, indeed, bears the stamp of genius…. But at the same time, as he selected and arranged the material in the fall of that crucial year, he was not completely satisfied with his role as an observer of New England. Accordingly, his decision in 1914 to return to the farm country and work in earnest (which he had never done before), not as a farmer but as the Yankee farmer poet, was of great importance. He found … a more comfortable and reassuring role than the one displayed in North of Boston. (pp. 132-33)
[In the years following 1913, Frost] sought a more reassuring regional identity, a different approach to the "poetry of the farm." Instead of presenting himself as an observer, analyst, and explorer north of Boston, he often posed as a spokesman for the region and an embodiment of its virtues. Although less faithful to his personality and background, this pose was gratifying in several ways. The more he played the true rustic, the more favorably his audiences and commentators seemed to respond. It was also easier to forget or overlook fears and uncertainties about his relationship to New England than to confront them as he had in his second collection. (p. 134)
Although not comparable to the twelve overtly dramatic poems in North of Boston, "Birches" is broadly similar in form to the three meditative lyrics, "Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile"; thus Frost could not have omitted it [from North of Boston] on generic grounds alone. Yet he evidently knew that he had done something different in it, something not quite appropriate to the tone and dramatic impetus of the other poems. Its speaker is a much more confident, affirmative, and dominating figure in the poem than are the other speakers. They face conflicts that leave them perplexed and uncertain, whereas the swinger of birches, surmounting all doubts and difficult questions, is given to pronouncements that have an oracular finality about them, despite their casual tone: "Earth's the right place for love…. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."… (pp. 135-36)
"Birches," of course, is not an extreme instance of the Yankee farmer as poetic persona. But after writing for more than twenty years, Frost had never—not in his two early experiments with a regional speaker ("The Tuft of Flowers" and "Mowing") and surely not in North of Boston—come so close to producing advertisements for himself as a Yankee poet. Thus this poem in 1913 was a significant step toward more blatant exhibitions soon to come. (p. 142)
Like "Christmas Trees," and somewhat like "Birches," "Browns's Descent" is a significant failure—significant as an indication of the dangerous tendencies Frost's regional pose seemed to encourage. By forcing the homiletic Yankee sage into the poem, by insisting too much on his "authority … as a regional figure, he undermined what might have been an effectively sustained tour de force—not a major work, of course, since the subject is trivial, but a creditable minor piece. A skilled poet, Frost was capable of treating his regional material with verve and originality. Yet he was not satisfied to work within the framework established by the narrative stanzas…. Going well beyond the sort of character study appropriate to a "book of people," he inserted the philosophical reflections of a rustic persona, reflections that devitalize the poem's comic spirit and weigh down its light, whimsical tone. (p. 144)
The first collection to show the debilitating influence of his regional commitment is Mountain Interval (1916). As in his first two volumes, he arranged the contents to suggest an underlying narrative. (p. 162)
Like "The Pasture" in North of Boston, "The Road Not Taken" is italicized and set apart from the rest of the poems in Mountain Interval as an introductory piece…. Frost's decision to use it as an introductory poem, and to follow it with the overtly regional "Christmas Trees," is perhaps best explained as an attempt to link his new book with North of Boston. The hiker in "The Wood-Pile" and "Good Hours" was uncertain about where he was headed and why. In "The Road Not Taken" he apparently decides—or, more accurately, he tries to convince himself—that by taking a "less traveled" road, he has provided his life with a direction "that has made all the difference."… That direction, the structure of Mountain Interval suggests, is toward the countryside, toward the rustic self-reliance and the Yankee shrewdness displayed, even flaunted, in "Christmas Trees." (p. 163)
This Yankee voice dominates the rest of Mountain Interval, particularly those poems written after Frost's crucial decision to return to the New Hampshire farm country and "get Yankier and Yankier." We no longer find an implied author who rambles about the New England countryside…. Instead, Frost's new speaker is located very concretely on his own farm. (p. 164)
Adopting his regional pose in poems like "A Time to Talk," Frost produced finely crafted work that is both technically impressive and pleasant to read. But in tailoring himself to this role, he left much of his personal, deeply felt response to New England out of the poem. What remains lacks force and originality…. [Frost's regional persona] seems unacquainted with guilt, uncertainty, and fear. And it is these limitations that make the Yankee persona a liability for Frost: he evinces no susceptibility to deep emotions or to flights of the imagination. Both the intensity and the eccentric sensitivity of the best poems in North of Boston are unsuited to the speaker who dominates Mountain Interval. For this secure regional figure, a problem is not something to regret or worry about; rather, it is something to defy and to take pride in having combatted. (pp. 165-66)
Though not the only New England voice Frost knew, it was in itself a remarkable literary accomplishment. Nimble, graceful, and adroit, it provided the impression of a robust, comfortably relaxed relationship between poet and audience, and Frost's reliance on it is therefore understandable. But if there is something impressive about a voice that never hits a false note, there is also something regrettable about its limitation to a well-rehearsed and safely restricted range. (p. 166)
[What] made the regional role so important in the latter part of Frost's career is that he seems to have regarded it as a means of simultaneously distinguishing himself from and ingratiating himself with the sophisticated urban and academic audiences he catered to. This was a key to his public success, and by strengthening the illusion of his close association with rural New England and his separation from cosmopolitan and "literary" society, it contributed to the failure of many readers and commentators to understand his peculiar position as a regional artist. (p. 170)
[There] were significant changes in Frost's art, changes that involved attenuation and fragmentation of the regional concern that characterized the collections from North of Boston in 1914 to New Hampshire in 1923. Beginning with the poems gathered in the fifth collection, West-Running Brook (1928), we find that Frost's mind was increasingly engaged by topics and situations unrelated to New England. Of course he churned out his quota of recognizably regional poems, but with only a few exceptions these lack the resonant diction, the striking imagery, the emotional range and force, and the sheer imaginative power of the masterpieces that appear in the first four volumes. (p. 177)
[Dropping] the Yankee pose was crucial to many of Frost's most effective later poems. These succeed not by offering a particular point of view, but by gathering provocatively incongruous snatches of vivid imagery, concrete detail, abstract philosophy, and common wisdom and blending them in a wide range of poetic styles, from demotic doggerel to Augustan wit and epic loftiness, from puns and bons mots to ironically inappropriate clichés and figures of speech….
Another significant development in Frost's work during the 1920s was a shift toward shorter forms. Only three of the distinguished late pieces exceed sonnet length…. (p. 178)
But while Frost's Yankee identity may have impaired his composition of effective long poems and encouraged his output of brief and often frivolous pieces, it also had serious consequences for the originality and imaginative vigor of his regional work. Although he could still produce short and medium-length poems that engaged his full lyric genius and called his dramatic gifts into play, and although he occasionally presented responses to his region that were deeply felt and brilliantly evoked, he more frequently spent his considerable powers in vain attempts to glorify and take advantage of the Yankee role that he and many of his readers found so attractive. (p. 180)
It is clear that in Frost's best regional work, New England is part of the conflict and confusion amid which the speaker seeks a momentary stay. When in "New Hampshire" and many of the later poems the Yankee pose led him to regard the region as a solution, his poetry suffered. (p. 183)
The trouble with Frost's adoption of a Yankee identity is that it falsified a deep tension arising from his position as an outside observer of a rural world in many ways closed to outsiders. (p. 185)
As his correspondence indicates, Frost was not only ambivalent about his identity as a farmer, he was also deeply emotional on the subject. In 1916, as his doubt concerning the rustic pose increased, he produced one of the strangest—and one of the most intriguingly suggestive—works of his career: the anomalous and generally disregarded one-act play. A Way Out. Of the two major characters, one is an exaggeratedly regional figure, a reclusive bachelor farmer, Asa Gorrill…. The second character is mysteriously anonymous: "A Stranger." (pp. 189-90)
In the confusion of identity at the end of A Way Out, one thing seems clear: the mergence of simple farmer and sinister stranger occurs before the final struggle. Thus the crime is less the cause of an alteration in identity than it is the result. The play's ambiguity implies not only the intended violence (stranger kills farmer) but also the possibility of punishment and revenge (farmer kills stranger).
To the self-described "fugitive from the world" …, who went as a stranger to the Derry farm in 1900 and who later adopted a regional identity as "a way out" of anonymity, depression, and financial difficulties, this extraordinary play may have had much more meaning than it is likely to have for most readers. (p. 192)
This play provides a valuable counterpoint to the self-assurance with which Frost is often assumed to have played the Yankee role. Critics from the teens down through the present time might have understood his regionalism better had they given careful consideration to the strange relationship of Asa and his alien Doppelgänger. But more important, A Way Out dramatizes—grotesquely exaggerates—the tension that gave a unique poignance to Frost's experience in New England. (p. 193)
So sensitive was Frost to the relationship of regional and nonregional, insider and outsider, that he created a wide range of characters and personae representative of the gradations between the opposing poles represented by Asa—the autochthonous, exaggeratedly rustic farmer—and the stranger—the faceless, homeless fugitive. (p. 195)
[A] memorable poem in which the tension between Frost's regional and nonregional identity plays an important, though almost imperceptible, role is "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The incantatory simplicity of the verse, the masterful economy of image, the thematic depth and resonance of this poem need no elaboration. What makes the piece particularly noteworthy as a regional work is that it was composed in a moment of inspiration after the poet had struggled all through a summer's night with the much longer (and much less successful) poem, "New Hampshire."… [The] poems are linked antithetically as contrasting attempts to define a regional identity.
"New Hampshire" was an excruciatingly ostentatious and affected attempt on Frost's part to come to terms with his adopted regional personality. (p. 199)
[In "Stopping by Woods"] we find restraint, economy, and gracefully tuned cadences—a far cry indeed from "New Hampshire," with its rambling blank verse and implausible modulations of banter, complaint, confession, and down-right cant. Moreover, Frost produced a persona for "Stopping by Woods" who contrasts sharply with the expansive, partisan speaker of the earlier work. Instead of showing off and seeking recognition, he shares a very private moment with us, a moment when he did not want to be seen or recognized….
Having spent most of the night impersonating a crusty, dauntless Yankee, Frost suddenly turned about to create another persona, one who not only wishes to avoid notice but who also applies the words "queer" and "mistake" to his own actions…. His strange mood—expressed by his subdued song—is in some sense a violation of local codes. There is a subtle tension in each stanza between his contemplative inclination to wait and watch the woods fill up with snow and his feeling, or suspicion, that such activity is inappropriate, perhaps reprehensible. (p. 200)
Thus a major contribution to the depth and complexity of this seemingly simple poem is the tension between a regional world, with its conventions and responsibilities, and the meditative, seclusive character of the persona. Though he is stationary, his utterance adumbrates two potential journeys: one in the countryside, a second in the realm of the imagination. (p. 201)
For Frost, the pasture spring, the woodpile and old patch of snow, the butterfly and "dimpled spider" are meaningful because of what the observer brings to them, because of what he has learned to see and to appreciate by traveling "who can tell how far?" And this is why the poetic power of his regional verse derives not just from New England, but from his and his speakers' exploration in it. Even those poems that lack a clearly dramatized explorer or outsider (like the visitor in "The Witch of Coös" and the personae in "West-Running Brook") depend for their force on Frost's skill at capturing the drama of exploration and discovery. (p. 206)
The discovered tragedy of "Design," the lugubrious "morning rite" (to respell the pun at the end of line 5), elicited from Frost one of his most brilliantly crafted and vividly imagined poems. Its technical sophistication and imagistic complexity have received wide critical attention…. But as an example of his approach to his region, his living [in the words of Thoreau] "at home like a traveler," it shows how much he could accomplish when, instead of posing as regional spokesman, he concerned himself with a speaker in the process of responding to things found through Thoreauvian exploration.
The obvious contrast in "Design" is between declarative and interrogative. The octave is a single, smooth-flowing, descriptive sentence. We can associate its tone of detachment and objective restraint with the voice of the conventionally impassive New Englander. The sestet, however, is a series of questions that reveals a strikingly idiosyncratic blend of emotions: horror, dismay, passionate curiosity, and agonized bewilderment. (pp. 207-08)
As the speaker phrases his questions in the sestet, the cause of his tormented response to what he has seen becomes clear. We realize that he expects no answers. His mode of questioning betrays both his sense of futility and his reluctance to admit defeat. Thus Frost prepares us effectively for the ambivalent conclusion of the final couplet: what has happened bespeaks either a sinister design or, worse, the absence of design. (p. 209)
By maintaining tension between inner and outer views of rural New England, Frost avoided the priggishness and sentimentality to which regional literature is vulnerable. His transcendence of the tradition is perhaps most evident in three highly original poems devoted to a favorite, indeed trite, local-color theme: the desolate, abandoned New England house. "An Old Man's Winter Night," "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," and "Directive" represent Frost at about the ages of thirty, fifty, and seventy; certainly his ability to produce memorable contributions to such an unpromising genre throughout his long career is a tribute to his unusual powers as a regional artist. In each of the poems he finds a different way of establishing the interplay of inner and outer that provides the original force for a new working of the old theme.
In "An Old Man's Winter Night," he goes into the house and deals with inside and outside in relation to the solitary occupant. It seems significant, considering the pattern of Frost's career, that the earliest of these pieces should convey the strongest sense of isolation and despair, the most vigorous opposition of man and region. Here the inner and outer forces are profoundly at odds with one another, and they represent not only the regional and nonregional worlds, but the human and the natural, the sensate and the insensate, the living and the dead. (pp. 215-16)
The gently lilting rhythms in ["The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"] and the poignant images of grief and sympathy, predispose us to imagine that the phoebes do weep. The soft, sympathetic voice gains strength throughout the first five quatrains, building toward a vision of compassionate nature in stanzas four and five. The speaker reverses himself in the final couplet, using the Yankee's homiletic voice to assert, "One had to be versed in country things / Not to believe the phoebes wept." But the very fact of his poetic utterance violates the impassive New Englander's wisdom. (p. 217)
In "Directive" Frost found an especially advantageous way of presenting a speaker who could at once reflect regional and nonregional concerns. His persona is a well-intentioned, ultimately ineffectual guide, one whose directive should be taken in the modest adjectival sense ("tending to direct") and not as a noun ("specific instruction or command"). This is a relaxed and good-humored piece, full of gentle ironies, and neither as challenging nor, despite its Christian symbolism and biblical allusions, as profound as some of Frost's earlier work. (pp. 217-18)
[Frost] was in some ways a victim as well as a beneficiary of his Yankee identity; had he been less dependent on his regional role, had he been less satisfied with his tendency toward stereotypical posturing, he might have done more to explore his particular genius, his full potentiality. As a result, we might now have more collections of the caliber of North of Boston, more imaginative and perceptive explorations truly worthy of Thoreau, more carefully conceived and dramatically sustained long poems, more study of character, more variation of voice, more restraint of facile sentiment, and perhaps more nonregional verse to stand with such triumphs as "Once by the Pacific," "Acquainted with the Night," "Neither Out Far nor In Deep," "Provide, Provide," and "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same."
This is a good deal to ask, of course. Yet, on surveying the artistic record, are we not likely to feel that Frost deserves a more solid position among the first rank of American authors? (pp. 221-22)
A survey of the Frost canon will perhaps seem disappointing in view of what might have been. Yet it also reveals that there is a large body of work to appreciate. As a complete volume, North of Boston is a notable landmark in the history of American poetry. Vivid in its language, well crafted in its metrical forms and overall structure, stimulating in imagery, unified in vision, and profound of theme, this work alone would assure Frost's eminence among his nation's regional writers. But beyond it there are enough first-rate poems to stake two or three literary reputations. (p. 222)
In a profoundly serious way, each of Frost's great poems explores the human condition, the universal experience of an individual located in New England, who struggles to find meaning in his or her life and in the surrounding natural and social worlds. There is no lack of commitment here, and at bottom no evasiveness or irony. Frost's speaker may doubt his ability to find meaning in the situation; he may express an ironic awareness that the meaning he finds, or thinks he may find, is unreliable or inappropriate. But the very existence of the poetic utterance, and of the care it implies, establishes commitment to the persona (or personae) and provokes strong sympathy with his search for meaning.
There may be an element of indecision in Frost's poems, but they do not express "fundamental indecisiveness." A sensitive reading of the darkest pieces (and actually they are few), even those in which the speaker fails to find any shred of useful meaning, does not lead to such a conclusion. (p. 228)
Frost's most powerful inspiration seemed to take shape in visions of struggle. The speakers in his three score greatest poems, regional and nonregional alike, are explorers, seekers, questioners. What they long for is understanding, confidence, and a sense of form or order: what he called a "momentary stay against confusion." (p. 230)
To read or hear or recite Frost's great poetry is to share in the pursuit of a profound vision of human life. As we observe his speakers undertake physical, intellectual, and imaginative exploration, the power of their words and the beauty of their song persuades us that they deserve not only our attention, but also our commitment and fullest appreciation. Few modern American authors have more to offer us. Whether in America, or around the world in Europe, Africa, or Asia, we may find rewarding fields for our own exploration as we turn and turn again with increased understanding and enjoyment to those poems in which Frost made best use of his literary gifts and his extraordinary imagination, his special sensitivity to life in New England and his insight into human nature. (p. 235)
John C. Kemp, in his Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist (copyright © 1978 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1979, 273 p.