Great Old Modern

Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

edited by Richard Poirier, edited by Mark Richardson
Library of America, 1036 pp., $35.00


As his book titles suggest, Robert Frost’s poems abound in geological and geographical imagery—there’s North of Boston, Mountain Interval, New Hampshire, West-Running Brook, A Witness Tree (one whose carved trunk records the boundaries of newly settled land), A Further Range. The connection between places and people—between the exterior and the interior landscape—is always close at hand in Frost’s work, a point illustrated with dexterous affection in his dedication of A Further Range to his wife, Elinor:

To E. F./for what it may mean to her that beyond the White Mountains were the Green; beyond both were the Rockies, the Sierras, and, in thought, the Andes and the Himalayas—range beyond range even into the realm of government and religion.

So it’s only fitting that Frost’s long poetic career itself evokes a geological figure: a high, extensive plateau. We begin on relatively low if irregular ground—the apprentice work of A Boy’s Will (1913), which was first published in London, during Frost’s two-year English sojourn with his wife and four children. After that, the ascent is steep. What follows are six books remarkable for the consistent elevation of their excellence, before at last we descend into the scree and rubble of the final two volumes, Steeple Bush (1947) and In the Clearing (1962).

Those six central books constitute their own terrain—one of the most bewitching in all of American literature. They are a sort of pristine table-land where rock faces are burnished, where flora and fauna are plentiful and hardy, and where visibility can be preternaturally clear. This is a region where you proceed under the dazzling certainty that you’re never very far from some unforgettable vista. You don’t like the particular poem you’re reading? Hike just a little farther—turn the page—and here’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or “Birches” or “Hannibal” or “Fire and Ice” or “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

The contours of Frost’s terrain are set out with more exactitude than ever before in the Library of America’s new volume, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. It includes, in addition to all the poems found in Edward Connery Lathem’s now-superseded The Poetry of Robert Frost, a number of heretofore unpublished verses, a few short stories and short plays, occasional essays, letters, transcriptions of lectures, and so forth. Although nothing newly assembled here is itself amazing or revelatory—this is scarcely a volume that transfigures our view of Frost—it provides the most dependable guide we have to a poet who offers continual amazement and revelation.

Frost’s career embodies that happy paradox by which an artist who grows and advances inevitably conspires to betray his younger self: by replacing the merely good with the excellent, he effaces his earnest, earlier accomplishments. It would be much harder to call A Boy’s Will apprentice work if what followed were not so commanding.

What is most striking with each rereading of A Boy’s Will is how much of the mature Frost was present from the outset. Admittedly, judgments about Frost’s…

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