Robert Frost’s second volume of poems, North of Boston, was published in England one hundred years ago by David Nutt and Company (which, in turn, was run by the penny-pinching Mrs. Alfred Nutt, whom Frost came to loathe). The volume is often considered Frost’s masterpiece, containing “Home Burial,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and many other of his best poems. It was universally praised in England, and proved popular with the American public when it was distributed by Henry Holt in 1915.
In his letters, Frost claimed the book was “epoch making.” It wasn’t. Poems, sadly, don’t make epochs, though some contribute to and reflect an age more than others. Two years after North of Boston was published, Frost told Louis Untermeyer that “The poet in me died nearly ten years ago.” He adds (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that “Fortunately he had run through several phases, four to be exact, all well-defined before he went.”
While it may be tempting to line these four phases up with Frost’s four major books of poetry, it is more interesting, I think, to see Frost’s view of poetry as a gift and a craft in this confession. Frost wrote much of his poetry on his own with little hope of either fame or fortune. He mostly eschewed literary trends and was concerned, when his poems began to sell, how his popularity might affect his art.
Of course, Frost once remarked that “Nothing is quite honest that is not commercial.” But as with much else, context is everything. The remark appears twice in his early letters. On June, 1915, he wrote:
Do you know, I think that a book ought to sell. Nothing is quite honest that is not commercial. Mind you I don’t put it that everything commercial is honest.
A few letters later, Frost returned to the idea:
All I insist on is that nothing is quite honest that is not commercial. You must take that as said in character. Of course I don’t mean by that that it isn’t true. Nothing is true except as a man or men adhere to it—to live for it, to spend themselves on it, to die for it. Not to argue for it! There’s no greater mistake than to look on fighting as a form of argument. To fight is to leave words and act as if you believed—to act as if you believed. Sometimes I have my doubts of words altogether and I ask myself what is the place of them. They are worse than nothing unless they do something, unless they amount to deeds as in ultimatums and war crys [sic]. They must be flat and final like the showdown in poker from which there is no appeal. My definition of literature would be just this, words that have become deeds.
The distinction Frost makes here is between poetry that people live to read and poetry that people merely argue over.
Frost may very well have had Pound in mind here. Pound, as was not uncommon among the so-called avant-garde, regularly railed against capitalism and the middle class, which had somehow sullied art’s purity. Frost saw this as posturing. He complained that Pound tried to drag him “into his ridiculous row” with America and scorned Pound’s concern “to dress the part of poet.” “Someone says,” he wrote to Ernest Silver, “that he looks altogether too much like a poet to be a poet. He lives in Bohemia from hand to mouth but he goes simply everywhere in great society.” (Pound would later call Frost “a bloated capitalist,” though he always wrote favorably of Frost’s poetry.)
Frost could put on a bit of a show, too, but his longing for popularity, at least in principle, was not for popularity or renown itself, but for what that popularity meant—that what he had written was art.
Whether or not this is true for all art, it certainly is for North of Boston.