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Burnt with Frost’

Robert Frost and his wife, Elinor, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, 1911

What is “the art” of Robert Frost? The long-lived Frost (1874–1963) had several arts, sometimes incompatible ones. In this he resembles many other poets: it is hard to connect the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads with the Wordsworth of the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, or—to take an example nearer to hand—the Lowell of Life Studies (1959) with the Lowell of History (1973). The song-like Robert Frost descends from Longfellow, and is a master of exquisite lyrics. The narrative Frost descends from Browning, and is a master of New England speech. Although both Frosts are admirable, it is possible to argue—as Tim Kendall of the University of Exeter does in his commentary on a selection of Frost’s poems—that the New England conversational Frost is the more original of the two.

Frost prided himself on having captured in poetry the “sentence sounds” of ordinary speech. He was right in arguing that even when one is unable to make out the words of a conversation behind a door, one can tell a great deal about the intensities of overheard passions as they declare themselves in timbre, pitch, volume, and tone. Frost had the genius to see that the dramatic monologue of Browning—always spoken by a single person in the (silent) presence of one or more other persons—could be wonderfully vivified when transformed into dialogue. In the agonizing “Home Burial,” for instance, Frost reproduces a cascade of tones—antagonistic, angry, defensive, pleading, piteous, raging, grief-stricken, hysterical, threatening. In departing from Browning’s single-voiced poems, Frost also departed—in his essentially anonymous regional people—from Browning’s more “artificial” historical or fictional characters (the Renaissance bishop selecting his tomb, Shakespeare’s Caliban). The dramatic Frost poems (mostly in blank verse) tend to arise from a single arresting incident: a child’s death, a boy’s mutilation by a buzz saw, a hired man’s return to a farm to die.

Frost’s first volume, A Boy’s Will (1913)—with a title taken from Longfellow—consisted only of lyrics, some very beautiful (especially “Mowing” and “October”). The dramatic poems surge into appearance only in his second volume, the well-named North of Boston (1914). Both collections, first published in London (where Frost had gone to live in 1912), were published in the United States in 1915, the year of his return from England. These two volumes were followed by Mountain Interval (1916) and New Hampshire (1923).

Kendall (and his publisher, Yale University Press), taking advantage of the present lapse of copyright protection on poems published before the end of 1923, can therefore print, without having to pay permission fees, poems from Frost’s first four books. From the forty years of Frost’s verse from 1923 through 1962, however, Kendall includes merely ten poems. There is nothing wrong in choosing poems that are out of copyright, but it seems disingenuous not to acknowledge, in a book grandly entitled The Art of Robert Frost, the commercial reason responsible, at least in part, for the extreme disproportion between early and later work. The publisher’s press release also fudges the commercial facts, declaring that the poems come “from across Frost’s writing career, beginning in the 1890s and ending with ‘Directive’ from the 1940s.” Yes, but 90 percent of them come from before 1923. As Robert Lowell put it, “Why not say what happened?” Why not openly disclose the influence of the 1923 cutoff on Kendall’s table of contents?

It is true, as Kendall says, that “after New Hampshire, Frost continued to write great poems but (by the high standards of earlier work) not great books.” Yet in choosing to print the whole of one entire volume, North of Boston, while regretting “not having found space for” many notable poems (among them, for instance, “October,” “The Hill Wife,” “Once by the Pacific,” and “Provide, Provide”), Kendall leaves his readers wondering: Was it worth sacrificing these famous lyrics in order to include “A Hundred Collars,” “Blueberries,” and “The Generations of Men” (three relatively unsuccessful dialogue-poems from North of Boston)? And if we believe that the earlier Frost was the better Frost, why not place on the cover the face of the gifted young man of the first four books rather than the face of the ancient Frost, twinkling and grinning?

Let me give two examples of later poems that might profitably have been included as shedding light on famous early ones, but that have been regrettably sacrificed to economic expediency. The early “After Apple-Picking” had transmitted the anxiety of the worker who is afraid to let any apple drop unharvested, lest it go to waste:

For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

Isn’t it worth recording that Frost later repented, at least momentarily, of the human interruption, by harvest, of the apple’s normal life cycle? In a thrilling sonnet of 1936, he praises a farmer who, by letting his apple tree go entirely “unharvested,” letting it stand among its windfalls, returns the world to its Edenic state:

For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!

The poems make a natural diptych. And although Kendall includes Mountain Interval’s grim tale of the murder of the sole remaining Indian in Acton (“The Vanishing Red”), he doesn’t show Frost’s vision (in the 1947 “A Cliff Dwelling”) of one of the last prehistoric Native Americans. The poet imagines that the tribes of the West found themselves, from time immemorial (and not merely from the time of the modern settlers), starving, besieged, and beset with fears. “Halfway up the limestone wall” of a canyon the poet sees a “spot of black”:

That spot of black is not a stain
Or shadow, but a cavern hole,
Where someone used to climb and crawl
To rest from his besetting fears.
I see the callus on his sole
The disappearing last of him
And of his race starvation slim,
Oh, years ago—ten thousand years.

The sudden close focus on “the callus on his sole” is genuine Frost, as he narrows his gaze to glimpse the bare flash of foot. Although Kendall does, very often, refer to one poem while commenting on another, he is clearly hampered by the absence among his texts of late poems still in copyright (except for his terminal ten).

When Frost (a Californian transplanted to New England as an eleven-year-old) was growing up, Browning was in the air. From the 1880s on Browning clubs gathered to interpret the works of the difficult and prolific English poet. Eliot’s “Prufrock” grows out of Browning, Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C” derives from Browning’s Sordello, and North of Boston’s sense of character comes directly from Browning. In Frost’s dialogues, New Hampshire people talk in seemingly plain, but often knotty, dialogue, about some undelayable or final predicament. Frost played speech against meter, and enjoyed the way he turned the stately blank verse of Milton and Wordsworth into preposterous lines like the final sentence uttered by the aged pauper “witch” of Grafton:

All is, if I’d a-known when I was young
And full of it, that this would be the end,
It doesn’t seem as if I’d had the courage
To make so free and kick up in folks’ faces.
I might have, but it doesn’t seem as if.

Behind all of Frost’s country dialogues is the glee he felt in turning the lofty into the low, in reforming blank-verse diction far beyond what Wordsworth had done in bringing it down to the language of “a man speaking to men.” No matter how savage or how tragic the matter of the verse, the unloosed energy in the play of speech and counterspeech always exhilarated Frost. He liked resorting to rapidly exchanged single short utterances, a form borrowed from classical Greek drama:

‘Shout, she may hear you,’
‘Shouting is no good.’
‘Keep speaking then.’
‘Hello. Hello. Hello.
You don’t suppose—She wouldn’t go outdoors?’
‘I’m half afraid that’s just what she might do.’
‘And leave the children?’

There are pages and pages of this in “Snow,” an unsuccessfully prolonged narrative dialogue from Mountain Interval.

Frost does better with a more restricted compass, a more moving theme, a more quick-eyed narrator, and a fast sense of back-and-forth, as in the opening of “Home Burial.” There, without a wasted word, the young parents of the dead child edge toward and away from each other, as the action passes from the bewildered husband to the accusatory wife and back again:

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down…
She took a doubtful step and then undid it….
He spoke
Advancing toward her….
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.

It is when the characters begin to speak that the drama mounts:

‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried….
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’

‘Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.’

And Frost ends the poem violently, as the wife attempts to leave the house and the husband cries out, “‘I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—’”

Dialogues of this sort, as Frost himself often said, were “a little nearer one act plays than eclogues.” But Frost was not at heart a dramatist; he was interested in people one by one, or at most two-by-two, rather than as members of a larger social group enmeshed in the multiple interrelations of drama. And unlike the dialogues or monologues of Beckett, Frost’s conversations carve out lengthy room for themselves, and dare us to be impatient as we slowly deduce, from hints and indirections, the tangle of sorrow or anger in the household we are visiting. It may be a household where a common-law wife has left her husband (“The Housekeeper”), or where the victim of an industrial accident awaits the insurance adjuster who is going to decide what his mangled “legs and feet” are worth. Gothic madness is often around the corner, as, to a superstitious speaker, the bones of a murdered man mount the house stairs “like a pile of dishes,” or descend from the attic “brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers.” And everywhere there is heard the Frostian rhythm, in which iambs interspersed with anapests and spondees manage strings of syllables mounting to barely bridled hysteria or subsiding into Yankee irony.

In his sympathetic commentaries on Frost’s narratives, Kendall ambitiously and economically sketches out the plot of each one, deftly mentions related poems, quotes Frost’s lectures and notebooks, identifies allusions and sources, glances at critical interpretations, and notes formal strategies. (The formal observations tend to be repetitive, since Kendall reiterates, from commentary to commentary, remarks on Frost’s monosyllables, feminine endings, trochaic interruptions, and use of eleven-syllable classical lines; he does not devote much time to larger structural shapes.) But is there sufficient attention paid here to the Frostian imagination? The commentaries rather often treat the population of these narratives as “real people.” Here is the conclusion, for instance, of Kendall’s commentary on “The Fear”:

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