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Great Old Modern

Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

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

1.

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 It includes, in addition to all the poems found in Edward Connery Lathem’s now-superseded The Poetry of Robert Frost, a number of heretofore unpublished verses, a few short stories and short plays, occasional essays, letters, transcriptions of lectures, and so forth.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 early development can be complicated. He was nearly forty when his first book appeared and its poems reflect the work of a couple of decades. In addition, while completing A Boy’s Will he was also amassing the manuscripts that would eventually materialize as his second and third collections. But questions of strict chronology aside, the leap in quality between A Boy’s Will and his second book, North of Boston, is extraordinary—all the more so in that he progressed so far merely by refining rather than renouncing his techniques. It’s no surprise that A Boy’s Will voices many of the great thematic concerns of Frost’s subsequent career (the threat of tragedy impinging on young lovers, his wavering between a need for approval and a hunger for solitude, his quest for corroboration of an innate optimism) as well as many of his characteristic tones (proud resolution, seasoned ruefulness, didactic grandeur).

But it is surprising how many of the later poetry’s “small touches” (those niceties of craftsmanship which for all their smallness manage, like the whorled ridges and valleys of a finger-print, to supply a sure identification) are found in A Boy’s Will: his fondness for altering meter or rhyme-scheme at the close of a poem; his playful use of italics; his penchant for cinquains; his spirited defiance of Pope’s injunction against monosyllabic pentameters (“Waiting” ends: “For whom these lines when they shall greet her eye”); his restless urge to tinker with the traditional machinery of the sonnet. “Mowing” shows him already partial to the homespun awkwardness of a word set beside itself (“What was it it whispered?”) and “My November Guest” adopts precisely the rhyme scheme, essential meter, and length of his later “The Road Not Taken.”

Two poems from A Boy’s Will, “Storm Fear” and “My Butterfly,” reveal a different strain in Frost’s evolution. While steadily iambic, they assume an organic form: both the number of stresses per line and the placement of rhymes vary according to the promptings of the subject matter. The opening lines of “Storm Fear” range anywhere from one to five stresses:

When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
The beast,
‘Come out! Come out!’
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
Ah, no!

Although this kind of elasticity was later employed by Frost with still greater success (including one of his most beautiful lyric poems, “After Apple-Picking,” and two of his most charming forays into light verse, “The Telephone” and “An Empty Threat”), he never pursued it very far. (Had Frost died young and left us only his first book, we could have plausibly projected for him, based on “Storm Fear” and “My Butterfly,” a career of much more looseness and improvisation than the one he chose.) In terms of versification, you might rephrase “The Road Not Taken” and say that early in Frost’s career two roads diverged in a wood and he took the one more direct, more clearly marked, in many ways more rigorous.

Frost famously quipped that he would as soon play tennis with the net down as write free verse—and it would appear that for him the writing of a gorgeous poem of unpredictable line lengths like “After Apple-Picking,” notwithstanding its staunch iambic underpinnings, was too much like playing tennis with a net of uneven height. Formally, he elected instead to go in the direction of the four-square. Over time, he held to consistent meters, while retaining his preference for exact rhyme over off-rhyme, stability over instability, euphony over dissonance; in poem after poem he would select a form whose demands were patent, and fulfill them to the letter.

Such tastes naturally drew him to the sonnet, a form which, with its quatrains for building blocks, is literally foursquare. (“But before all,” he requested, in a letter summarizing his literary tastes, “write me as one who cares most for Shakespearean and Wordsworthian sonnets.”) The sonnet’s characteristic movement toward compression, as exemplified in its final couplet, suited both the deductive bent of his mind, which habitually ventured from the particular example to the embracing principle, and the strategy of his rhetoric, which relished the journey from the colloquially offhand to the tightly epigrammatic. A Boy’s Will opened with a sonnet, and others are sprinkled throughout his oeuvre. Robert Nye, editor of the valuable anthology A Book of Sonnets, has called Frost “perhaps the master sonneteer” of the century—a claim which, when all forty-some of his published and unpublished sonnets are considered together, seems indisputable.

Indeed, any search for serious rivals inevitably leads one deep into the past. In view of both number and quality of sonnets, only Hopkins, Wordsworth, Milton, Donne, Shakespeare, and two or three others are his peers. To my mind, there are four Frost sonnets that verge on perfection: “Design,” “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and “The Master Speed” (with five others, “The Oven Bird,” “Once by the Pacific,” “Range-Finding,” “Once by the Pacific,” “Range-Finding,” “The Silken Tent,” and “On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep,” close behind—how many poets, ever, have compiled a group of “also-rans” that could run with these?). It’s possible, I suppose, to write better sonnets—but a reader might well swear otherwise while in the middle of any of them. Is “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” (in which songbirds recall Eve’s cadences in Eden) any less memorable a portrayal of residual, immanent holiness than Hopkin’s “Spring”? Or “Acquainted with the Night” any less haunting a sketch of irreducible solitude than Keats’s “When I Have Fears”? Or Frost’s little monochrome disquisition on evil, “Design,” in which a white spider summons up a world of satanic black magic, any less desperate than Donne’s “Oh my black soul …?” Ultimately, such comparisons seem both dizzying and superfluous—for we have entered that privileged realm where, line by line, the cadences we would appraise have a deathless ring.

The Master Speed,” an affirmation of love’s ability to overcome life’s obstacles, was composed for the wedding of Frost’s daughter Irma:

No speed of wind or water rush- ing by
But you have speed far greater.
   You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swift- ness not for haste
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with such a mas- ter speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar.

When viewed up close—with an eye to the concision of its phrasings, its fluency of rhyme and enjambment, its command of pacing—this Shakespearean sonnet is an astonishing feat. And no less astonishing when viewed from as far away as possible, just as though you’d never seen a sonnet before. While as artificial as any linguistic structure could be—this shipshape packet of a hundred-forty syllables, with its even apportionment of seventy stresses and its elaborate rhyme scheme rigging together every tenth syllable—it’s also a natural spoken utterance. For this is precisely how all parents might speak to their children on their wedding days—provided, merely, that the parents could strip from their speech every last awkwardness and approximation, every little stammering confusion and infelicity. I think it was Charles Lamb who once observed that he could write like Shakespeare if he only had the mind—which inspired a friend to add that, indeed, it was only the mind that was lacking. In his clarity and ease Frost, too, inspires a fatuous boast: we could all write like Frost, provided only we could all write like Frost.

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