After Frost’s wife died in the thirties, he stepped up the pace of his public readings. He must have gotten consolation from being Robert Frost, from being the image of himself that he had perfected with such genius. I have heard him say mockingly that hell was a half-filled auditorium. This was a hell he never had to suffer. Year after year after year, he was as great a drawing-card as Dylan Thomas was in his brief prime. Yet there was a strain; never in his life was he able to eat before a reading. A mutual friend of ours once said with pity, “It’s sad to see Frost storming about the country when he might have been an honest schoolteacher.”
Frost had an insatiable yearning for crowds, circles of listeners, single listeners—and even for solitude. Can we believe him when he says he “took the road less travelled by”? He ran, I think, in no tracks except the ones he made for himself. The thinker and poet that most influenced him was Emerson. Both had something of the same highly urbane yet homemade finish and something of the same knack for verbal discovery. Both went about talking. Both leaned on and defied the colleges. A few of their poems are almost interchangeable. “In May when sea winds pierced our solitudes—I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods.” Part of Frost was wary of Emerson. “Great is the art/Great shall be the manners of the bard.” He knew better than anyone that his neighbors would find this manner boring and insufferable. He tried to make himself a man of many ruses, subtle surprises, and weathered agility. He was almost a farmer. Yet under the camouflage there was always the Brahma crouching, a Whitman, a great-mannered bard. If God had stood in his sunlight, he would have elbowed God away with a thrust or a joke.
He wasn’t quite a farmer even in his early, isolated years. He didn’t quite make a living; he got up at noon. He said the cows got used to his hours more easily than his neighbors. There was nothing very heroic or out of the ordinary here, yet these fifteen years or so of farming were as valuable to him as Melville’s whaling or Faulkner’s Mississippi. Without exactly knowing it, and probably not intending it, Frost found he was different from other men of letters. He used to tell a story about a Florida train trip he took with Wallace Stevens. The two poets were nervous with each other. Stevens however was more in the vacationer’s mood. He made witty remarks, and finally said, “The trouble with your poetry, Frost, is that it has subjects.” I don’t want to spoil the weird, whimsical rightness of Stevens’s taunt. Frost had an unfashionable hold on subjects. What were they?
I suppose what I liked about Frost’s poems when I read them thirty years ago was their description of the New England country, a world I knew mostly from summer and weekend dips into it. It was a boy’s world, fresher, grainer, tougher, and freer than the city where I had to live. “Back out of all this now too much for us,” “Over back there where they speak of life as staying,” “the dory filled to the gunnels with flowers,” “the tar-banded ancient cherry trees,” one man saying, “Weren’t you relived to find he wasn’t dead?” and the other answering, “No! and yet I don’t know—it’s hard to say/I went about to kill him fair enough.” I used to wonder if I knew anything about the country that wasn’t in Frost. I always had the pleasure of either having my own knowledge confirmed or of learning something new that completed it. I hardly cared which.
The arts do not progress but move along by surges and sags. Frost, born in 1875, was our last poet who could honestly ignore the new techniques that were to shatter the crust. He understood the use of tools, often wonderful tools, that five or ten years later would be forever obsolete. He was a continuer and completer and not a copyist. When he began to write the American cultural scene was unimaginably different from anything we now know. There were no celebrated masters to meet, no one to imitate. Poetry was the great English Romantics and Victorians and their famous, official American offshoots. Through their practice, criticism, and translations, the known past had been reborn in their image.
Frost had a hundred years’ tradition he could accept without question, yet he had to teach himself everything. Excellence had left the old poetry. Like the New England countryside, it had run through its soil and had been dead a long time. Frost rebuilt both the soil and the poetry: by edging deeper and deeper into the country and its people, he found he was possessed by the old style. He became the best strictly metered poet in our history, and our best local observer, at least in meter. The high wind of inspiration blew through his long, packed, isolated rustication. By the time he was forty and had finished his second book, North of Boston, he had arrived. Step by step, he had tested his observation of places and people until his best poems had the human and seen richness of great novels. No one had helped him to learn, and now no one could because no one wrote better.
Randall Jarrell has a fine phrase about Frost’s “matter-of-fact magnificence.” He writes that the poems’ subjects are isolation, extinction, and the learning of human limitation. These three themes combine, I think, in a single main theme, that of a man moving through the formless, the lawless and the free, of moving into snow, air, ocean, waste, despair, death, and madness. When the limits are reached, and sometimes almost passed, the man returns.
This is what I remember about Frost. There was music in his voice, in the way he made his quotations ring, in the spin on his language, in the strange, intuitive waywardness of his toleration. He was less of the specialized literary man than other poets and more curious personally.
Last November I walked by his house on Brewster Street in Cambridge. Its narrow gray wood was a town cousin of the farmhouses he wrote about, and stood on some middle ground between luxury and poverty. It was a traveler from the last century that had inconspicuously drifted over the customs border of time. Here one night he was talking about the suicide of a young friend, and said that sometimes when he was excited and full of himself, he came back by thinking how little good his health could do those who were close to him.
The lights were out that night; they are out for good now, but I can easily imagine the barish rooms, the miscellaneous gold-lettered old classics, the Georgian poets, the Catullus by his bedside, the iron stove where he sometimes did his cooking, and the stool drawn up to his visitor’s chair so that he could ramble and listen.