Yvor Winters—the now largely forgotten modernist poet and critic—didn’t care much for Robert Frost. In 1948 he expressed what was and remains a common critique of Frost’s work. Though sometimes “praised as a classical poet,” Winters writes, Frost is no such thing. Classical literature glorifies noble characters, Frost’s poetry the “average” human being. “The human average has never been admirable,” Winters continues, “and that is why literature which glorifies the average is sentimental.” Frost is “a poet of the minor theme, the casual approach, and the discreetly eccentric attitude.”
Winters was not the first to characterize Frost as a simple, folksy poet who retreated from the modern world to the New England countryside. In 1936, William Rose Benét called Frost a “wise old woodchuck.” That is, Frost “is a close observer of the earth and the ways of man on the earth.” Yet to call Frost a “woodchuck”—one of the Northeast’s most common mammals—is to present him, wittingly or unwittingly, as a regional poet. Writing a few years earlier, Frederic Carpenter states, rather bluntly, that Frost lacks the “cosmic imagination” and “power” of Whitman. He has limited his poems to the occasional subject, the personal tenor, “renouncing the possibility of becoming something greater.”
Frost has always had his defenders, however, from Ezra Pound to Dana Gioia. The latest is Tim Kendall in The Art of Robert Frost. He sees in Frost a trait common to all great artists: the ability, as Frost himself put it, “to be a poet for all sorts and kinds.” Frost’s best poems, according to Kendall, have at least two meanings—a “particular” and an “ulterior” one. This may be true of all art, but great artists are those whose “particular” meaning is expressed so well that readers, as Frost is reported to have said, “might feel free to settle for that part of the poem as sufficient in itself.”
Yet too many readers have settled for the well-said particular meaning of Frost’s poems. In this uniquely formatted book, in which 64 of Frost’s best poems are reprinted in full and commented on at length by Kendall, the author reads Frost for us, showing us—if not always convincingly—Frost’s artistry.
While the book is ordered chronologically—beginning with Frost’s first book of poems, A Boy’s Will (1913) and ending with a selection of later poems, the last of which are chosen from Steeple Bush (1947)—Kendall returns to the main themes of Frost’s work throughout: the opposition of nature and human society, work, death, marriage, and the value of art.
The word “world” for Frost almost always means civilization—rarely, if ever, nature—and from his earliest poems, Kendall notes, the temptation to reject civilization pulls on the characters that people the poet’s work. In “Into My Own,” one of Frost’s earliest poems, a youth “Fearless of ever finding open land” is persuaded, according to Frost’s authorial note, “that he will be rather more than less himself for having foresworn the world.” “Freedom,” Frost wrote in 1959, “is nothing but departure—setting forth—leaving things behind, brave origination of the courage to be new,” and it’s for freedom that the youth in “Into My Own” determines to “steal away” into the vast “dark trees.” The result, the youth imagines, will be self-realization:
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
There is no regret or loss here, only a hypothetical increase in surety of all the youth “thought was true” that is simultaneously admirable and sadly obstinate. (Frost once told the poet Edward Thomas, in his own sadly obstinate moment, “I dont [sic] suppose I was ever sorry for anything I ever did except by assumption to see how it would feel.” “Regret,” Kendall writes, “in Frost’s view, is a self-indulgent emotion which does nothing to assist those who have been wronged.”)
Yet as Kendall points out, this rejection of human society, which the youth imagines will bring a personal expansion, is questioned in Frost’s other works. In “The Tuft of Flowers,” which was also first printed in A Boy’s Will, a mower working alone discovers “a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook” that the previous day’s mower had left. The flowers draw the two mowers together: “As a consequence, the ‘one whose thought I had not hoped to reach’ can now be addressed in ‘brotherly speech’ and treated as ‘a spirit kindred to my own’.” The loneliness that the mower had earlier felt is extinguished by the community provided in work.
In North of Boston, Frost’s second collection, the importance of community is announced in the first poem, “The Pasture,” in which the poet invites us to come with him as he goes to “clean the pasture spring” and “fetch the little calf.” Kendall observes that this opening piece not only shows Frost’s classical knowledge—“Just as Greek antiquity associated the Muses with springs, so Frost locates and tends the pastoral source of his poetic inspiration in his own ‘pasture spring’”—it also “prefigures a group of poems concerned with the interplay of open and closed spaces, with windows and doorways, with walls built and breached, and with barriers between people.” Regarding the latter, Kendall has in mind poems where walls built out of ignorance (“Mending Wall”) or tragedy (“Home Burial”) drive people apart.
In all of these poems, Kendall argues, Frost’s ulterior meaning is often missed because readers fail to follow subtle clues. “The Tuft of Flowers,” for example, can be reduced to the final pat lines of the poem, “Men work together… /Whether they work together or apart.” Yet, as Kendall notes, the flowers symbolize art in the absence of utilitarian value and in the community they create. The poem also comments on how artists work. The first mower, Frost writes, had left the flowers “not for us, /Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him. /But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.”
He was, in other words, an artist, creating beautiful objects—ironically depicted here as not cutting the flowers, a minimalist act that beats even Duchamp’s signing of his “Fountain”—neither for others nor for personal fame but for the pleasure found in beauty alone. The second mower, also an artist, continues the first’s work, building on the foundation before him and experiencing the communion of his absent yet present co-laborer.
Elsewhere, Kendall shows how Frost’s allusions to Shakespeare, Horace, and Virgil unlock the ulterior meaning of a poem. “The Oven Bird,” for example, is a response to Keats’s nightingale, Shelley’s skylark, or Hardy’s “darkling thrush.” Frost’s bird is more modest than its European counterparts, asking merely “what to make of a diminished thing.” But, as Kendall points out, the iambic pentameter and sonnet form Frost uses to give the bird life are borrowed from overseas. “For Frost,” Kendall writes, “originality stems not from rejection of the past but from deploying its resources in unforeseen ways.”
While Kendall is quick to note a naïve rhyme here or clichéd image there, he sometimes lets the poet off too easily. Winters found fault with Frost’s “loose” forms, no doubt thinking of his “talking poems” in North of Boston. Kendall defends the dialogue poems by pointing us to their model—Virgil’s Eclogues—and citing Frost’s ambition to create poems that captured the speech rhythms of New England. But many of these poems are simply clunky. We have lines like this from “The Fear”:
“Yes, do.—Joel, go back!”
She stood her ground against the noisy steps
That came on, but her body rocked a little.
“You see,” the voice said.
“Oh.” She looked and looked.
Or this from “In the Home Stretch”:
“Shouldn’t you like to know?”
“I’d like to know
If it is what you wanted, then how much
You wanted it for me.”
“A troubled conscience!
You don’t want me to tell if I don’t know.”
Frost is at his best when he drops the dialogue and allows his speech to be modulated by a diction refined enough to provide pleasure without becoming confectionary. “Mowing,” “Birches,” “The Cow in Apple Time,” “Out, Out—,” “Fire and Ice,” and others—these are the poems that make Frost a great poet. They have all the particularity of living things but possess a diction and meter polished enough to give them the crafted elegance of art.
Frost once said that great poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The regularity with which Frost’s poems do exactly this, as The Art of Robert Frost shows, is an accomplishment matched by few others.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.