Robert Frost Crosses the Missouri

Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing

by Richard Poirier
Oxford University Press, 322 pp., $11.95

Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915

by Lawrance Thompson
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 643 pp., $12.50

Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938

by Lawrance Thompson
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 744 pp., $15.00

Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963

by Lawrance Thompson, by R.H. Winnick
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 468 pp., $17.95

Robert Frost’s long life came to an end in 1963, and Lawrance Thompson’s long life of Robert Frost—that of an authorized biographer, who was outlived by his labors, and whose third volume was completed by a colleague—came to an end last year. Frost’s life rang with praise and applause, but he has so far been the subject of a disproportionately small amount of literary criticism. The oracles have been dumb, for the most part, and sometimes surly. Richard Poirier’s book, however, will cause them to speak. Among other matters, it will cause them to speak about what it is like for the poems to be read by a reader of Leavis and of Mailer—a reader for whom the writing of poetry can be compared to sexual intercourse.

Bernard DeVoto, who was one of the many friends with whom Frost quarreled, told him that he was a good poet but a bad man, and the same impression can be gained from the Thompson biography. Other Americans have preferred the still simpler view that he was both a bad poet and a bad man. His writings were judged according to the social divisions they tended to inflame: country against city, heartland against advanced urban opinion with an eye on Europe, patriotism against the anti-Americanism of the expatriate “lost generation,” piety against psychiatry.

The attacks that were made, in the Twenties and after, on native America and its favorite artists could be kind to Frost only to the extent of declaring him the wrong poet for the new time that had come, and he went on to irritate both the liberal imagination and the leftism of later times. Partisan Review was never eager to write about him, any more than The New York Review of Books has been. For all his medals, prizes, honorary degrees, and visiting professorships, the universities have not been anything like as eager to study him as they have been to study Pound, Eliot, and Stevens. And yet, bad and wrong as he has been alleged to be, he is among the masters of American poetry.

These divisions and anomalies are of a piece with others that accompany the story of his life. It is the story of the mastery of an art, and of a response to fear and pain. The comedy it yields is the high, black comedy of paranoid megalomania. Thompson’s biography has plenty of such fun, and so has Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, whose portrait of the mountain poet, curmudgeonly John Shade, contains pointed references to Frost, and is contained within the self-portrait of a devoted scholar. The novel is not referred to in any of Thompson’s voluminous volumes, but if reads as if it had had wind of them.

The biography tells of a series of terrible domestic misfortunes, and of a strain of insanity of Frost’s side of the family. His father was wild and frightening, and punishing; tubercular and a drinker …

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