Frost, Robert (Vol. 15)
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.)
[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).
[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...
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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...
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Mark Van Doren
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...
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Harold H. Watts
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...
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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...
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John C. Kemp
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...
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