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, he died young. His mother then worked as a schoolteacher, enduring hard times and hostility. When the doctor arrived to deliver Frost, the father greeted him with a revolver, to put him on his mettle, and Frost himself once waved a gun at his wife and young daughter, in the middle of the night, pressing the daughter to choose which of her parents should be the one to be gone by the morning. Feeling rejected during his courtship of Elinor Frost; he set off on a journey through a fastness called the Dismal Swamp in Virginia, vaguely intent on suicide. His sister entered a psychiatric institution. So did a daughter. Another daughter died in childbirth. A son committed suicide. Other children died in miscarriage or in infancy. On her deathbed in 1938, Elinor, a woman of formidable reserve, refused to let him in to see her. For the quarter of a century that followed, Frost was nourished by the care and friendship of Mrs. Kathleen Morrison, who served as his secretary.
A gift for words became evident early in his distresses, but the fame to which it led was to prove as distressing to him, in certain respects, as any of his disasters. His distresses made him a monster. This victim was to show, as he himself confessed, an “Indian vindictiveness.” This beautiful writer, “scared,” as he conceded, by his enemies, by the “literary gangsters” who were out to get him, grew to have the face of a gangster or godfather.
Here is the lovable, puritanical poet of popular acclaim in the act of procuring Benjamin DeVoto to attack his enemies for him: “I am going to have you strike that blow for me now if you still want to and if you can assure your wife and conscience you thought of it first and not I. The Benny-faction must be beyond suspicion of procurement on my part or I will have none of it.” DeVoto’s response to Frost’s conscription of his friends was spirited—unlike that of Louis Untermeyer, who soldiered on for years and years. At one point, Untermeyer offended Frost by embarking on a divorce—always a sore subject with the poet. Not long afterward, Untermeyer’s son took his own life, and “Frost, with typical austerity, viewed this death as a punishment the parents had brought on themselves.” Here, again, is Frost imagining a rebuke to Pound which invokes their relations with each other in the days when Pound helped to launch him in London, thereby saddling the Yankee with the embarrassment of a European debut: “My contribution was to witticisms: yours the shitticisms. Remember how you always used to carry toilet paper in your pocket instead of handkerchief or napkin to wipe your mouth with when you got through?”
Thompson has a habit of seeming to hover at the edge of admitting the monstrous and comic nature of the incidents which fill his book, and, unlike Frost himself, he lacked the flair, and the sense of humor, to exploit them, to any pitch of vivacity, in the telling. And yet you begin to wonder whether the strains and exasperations which must afflict the official biographer, married to a procuring subject, may not have issued in some suppression of Frost’s kind actions and common humanity. The suspicion is not removed by an inspection of the list of “topical subheads” which precedes the index to each volume. In the second volume, the topics include “brute,” “charlatan,” “cowardice,” “enemies,” “escapist,” “fear,” “hate,” “insanity,” “jealousy,” “punishment,” “puritan,” “rage,” “rebel,” “revenge,” “spoiled child,” “vindictive,” “war.” That’s almost half the list: it reads like a character assassination, and its most startling item is “murderer.” But the really bleak thing about the book is that you eventually decide that its portrait of the artist in terms, so often, of his trophies, retaliations, and rigmarole of speaking engagements must represent a more or less complete record. “Check up on me some,” advised Frost, with reference to his own inventive accounts of his life. You decide that, in checking, Thompson has not been drawn to the atrocious, at the expense of other topics.
The book works well as a kind of Frost archive, though the same documents keep recurring. Character and behavior are sensibly described. But the narrative and the critical discussions are flat, and remain flat in the collaborative third volume. Not all the scholarship is sensible, though most of it is. When Frost said that one half of him was a “Scotch symbolist” (the other half, according to Untermeyer, was a “Yankee realist”), he had in mind his romantic extraction, as he felt it to be, and perhaps an ancestral mysticism: he can’t have had in mind the three fifteenth-century Scottish poets whose dates, known and conjectured alike, are then furnished in the notes. If a debt to Scotland is to be assessed, it may be thought that his career owed more to that of Robert Burns, less of a symbolist than Frost, and more of a farmer.
The second volume is concerned with “the years of triumph.” In the triumphant year of 1924, he left one of his academic posts as resident (but fugitive) poet: these ambiguous arrangements were always coming to an end. His spells at Amherst were more difficult than the valedictories might suggest. President Meiklejohn, who had invited him there originally, in pursuit of a genuinely imaginative teaching program, had been repudiated by Frost on the grounds that he was a liberal; and had subsequently been dismissed by the trustees. Another of Frost’s sponsors and supporters, a witty Missourian, had also been repudiated by him, as a liberal and a homosexual: his sex life, Frost reckoned, gave grounds for dismissal. It was announced by the college in 1924 that Frost was to leave in order to persevere with his theory of “detached education” at the University of Michigan, to which he’d been engaged for some while without informing Amherst. “Detached education” meant greater freedom for students (and teachers), and an indifference to marks. His Michigan fellowship, “for life,” was to entail “no obligations of teaching,” and provide “entire freedom to work and write.”
Frost was visited at this time by a reporter, who spoke of how disheveled and forgetful he was, how he “admitted” that Amherst colleagues disapproved of him for this, how keen he was that undergraduates who were “poets on the sly” should be rallied by the poet-teacher. “As he stood on the step of his Amherst home bidding his guests farewell, the moon shone full upon him. His gray hair was tousled in the most grotesque manner, his hands were extended in a curious, generous gesture, and his voice carried across the yard a gentle invitation to come again.” The moon was shining on “one of the friendliest spirits in the land, a spirit that refuses to attack, but refuses to conform.” Thompson calls attention to the naïveté of this report.
In fulfillment of his outstanding obligations to the college, Frost laid on the spectacle of that “picturesque monster,” in Thompson’s phrase, the large and influential Amy Lowell. The visit passed off all right, despite her abrasive grandeur. Privately, though, Frost regarded her majesty as a fraud, and was nerving himself to expose her. Early the next year, what survived of his willingness to tolerate her pretensions was severely tested. He had agreed to be present at a party for her book on Keats, though, as the day approached, he felt tired out from a round of public appearances. But then Amy made it known that she would be too ill to attend a later birthday party for Frost himself. He chose, therefore, to be absent from the Lowell celebration. But then Amy chose to die, and Frost was left, in the words of his biographer, “conscience-stricken.”
A telegram of condolence flew, and he made a public statement in which exposure had to content itself with measured innuendoes: “Amy Lowell was distinguished in a period of dilation when poetry, in the effort to include a larger material, stretched itself almost to the breaking of the verse.” Untermeyer seems to have been no less of a casualty than Frost in the battle of the canapes, and Frost wrote to him in such a way as to appear, by a characteristic sleight, to be palming off the wound he’d received himself onto his stricken friend:
I suspect that what lies at the bottom of your Schmerz is your own dereliction is not having gone to her Keats East just before Amy died. She got it on us rather by dying just at a moment when we could be made to feel that we had perhaps judged her too hardly. Ever since childhood I have wanted my death to come in as effectively and affectingly. It helps always any way it comes in a career of art.
His next notable public appearance consisted of a funeral oration for the president of the University of Michigan, who was praised for having ideas on education strikingly similar to those of the orator: “detachment” had suffered a loss. And so it all went on. These were among the laurels he gathered in middle life. This is what he did when he wasn’t writing verse. And these episodes can be said to indicate that a pedagogic interest in detachment was allied to a more general interest in flight. One tenure was fled from into another. He was interested in flight, and he was also interested in threatening it, and in abstaining from it.
Volume three is entitled The Later Years, and one of these years was 1957, during which he traveled to England, together with his biographer, on a “good-will” mission for the State Department, and drove to visit a friend, the merry old English writer Sir John Squire. Squire turned out to be “a sight,” Thompson reports. “He wore a baggy, loose-knit sweater, over a dirty white shirt that was open at the throat. He sat in a pair of worn and dirty gray corduroy trousers, with low sneakers on his sockless feet. What was worse, when he began to speak, his slurred voice suggested heavy drinking.” Worse still, perhaps, “Martha appeared, with a beer keg for Thompson to sit on. Introduced by Sir John as his ‘secretary,’ she served drinks.”
After an hour, their good will exhausted by this dubious secretary and by the discovery that Squire was a “mere shadow” of his former self—a rather fraudulent self at the best of times, according to some—the delegation fled back to London. The following morning Frost affected a sore throat in order to escape a visit to the widow of his closest friend, the poet Edward Thomas, killed in the Great War. Decades before, Helen Thomas had disgusted him by “saying too much in her autobiography about her sexual conduct with her husband before and after their marriage.” Thompson could well have observed that many readers have been moved by her autobiography.
The theme of flight, apparent in the biographical data, is equally apparent in Frost’s writings, and it is a theme which relates to a fairly wide range of behavior—to dying and resigning, for example, and to refraining from these things. For Richard Poirier, the “imagination of withdrawal” is of great importance in Frost, and his book is preoccupied with it. The Work of Knowing is very thoroughly determined by what it takes to be Frost’s leading concerns: you could say that its formal qualities express a due regard for what matters most in the most substantial poems, and for the connections between them. Its readings are at times coercive, and taxingly ingenious; they put forward a sternly favorable view of sexuality, and ask for a little more from Frost, on that subject, than he is able to offer. But the book is serious and shapely, with the shape of its own seriousness.
Frost wanted to get away. We may feel, for example, that he wanted to get away from the society which humiliated him, and his mother, when he was young, and which honored him in later life. But if we are conscious of withdrawals on his part, we are mainly conscious of their being imagined and abandoned. These withdrawals need to be discussed with reference to his participation in some of the forms of dualistic and dialectical thinking which were current in the nineteenth century, and which were strongly canvassed in the English and American literature of his most impressionable years.
It almost scares
A man the way things come in pairs.
But there was safety in pairs, too. Much of his verse was elicited by his fears, and much of his vindictiveness, and his fears could well have elicited his feeling for pairs, and for Emerson’s feeling for pairs—Emerson, Thoreau, and William James being the philosophic “stays against confusion” that mattered to him, and began to do so in the days when he was seeking, and running from, a university education.
A Thompson-Winnick note reads: “Viewing truth as a continuing dialectic of opposites, he rarely took an extreme position except…for purposes of counterbalancing its equally extreme antithesis. Truth, for RF, was always somewhere in the middle—and he would never presume to say exactly where.” This information—together with the poem in which truth is a ghostly glimpse, impossible to say exactly of what, at the bottom of a well—allows one to reflect on the state of affairs whereby RF was alternately seen as a classical and as a romantic writer. But the suggestion in the note of a never presumptuous Frost, of a “classical” stance of moderation, of a golden mean between retreating and remaining, dilation and contraction, is misplaced. His “classical” traits can be said to fall to one side of the set of opposites he is interested in, and should be seen as a factor in his relationship with romantic duality. He was only very faintly interested in the “Gothic,” or the more egregious, versions of duality. But the truth is that he was a romantic writer, and that it was romantic of him to be a pair of writers—realist and symbolist, domestic and wild—at a time when things came in pairs and pairs were romantic.
It is doubtful whether that time has gone, but there have long been readers for whom the imagination of pairs was trivial or incredible. During Frost’s adult life, sophisticated people began to think that it was wrong to be this sort of writer, and it can’t have been hard to think of him, instead, as a classically sententious poet of country life, with an eye on the city—as a sage sort of pastoral poet, in other words (Poirier, incidentally, might have had the heart to explain the Latin trope of “bucolic diaresis”). Nevertheless, Yvor Winters is right to call him an “Emersonian romantic,” though he does so in an essay, “Robert Frost: or, the Spiritual Drifter as Poet,” which reads like a vagrancy charge and asserts that defects of character have ruined his poetry.
Winters complains that Frost has been thought classical because of his concern with the “human average,” the norm: the classical writer, he says, is concerned with “the norm of what humanity ought to be.” This may leave us free to feel that the romantic writer is likely to be concerned with the exception, with departure from the norm, or from the home. And what riles Winters is not so much Frost’s glorification of the average, if that can be said to occur, as his glorification of the exception, and of impulse—which will often, we may add, be the impulse to escape.
Winters compiles a list of the views held by his spiritual drifter, and it proves to be quite like Thompson’s list of topical subheads:
he believes that impulse is trust-worthy and reason contemptible, that formative decisions should be made casually and passively, that the individual should retreat from cooperative action with his kind, should retreat not to engage in intellectual activity but in order to protect himself from the contamination of outside influence, that affairs manage themselves for the best if left alone, that ideas of good and evil need not be taken very seriously. These views are sure to be a hindrance to self-development, and they effectually cut Frost off from any really profound understanding of human experience, whether political, moral, metaphysical, or religious.
This is less than the half of Frost. The man who managed his affairs, and got others to help him, who enjoined, and even engaged in, cooperative action, who could resist the impulse to leave home, and who could write poems about these experiences, is missing. And so are all the tensions and anomalies of Frost’s life and art.
Winters claims that the result of these views, in the “symbolic lyrics,” “is a disturbing dislocation between the descriptive surface, which is frequently lovely, and the ultimate meaning, which is usually sentimental and unacceptable.” “Spring Pools” is a symbolic lyric which mourns what predatory woods will do to the pools:
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yester- day.
The life of the poem is in its “descriptive surface,” for which “lovely” would be too weak a word, and which is a good deal more than surface anyway. The “ultimate meaning” has to do with being sorry, in traditional style, about transience and loss, and alludes to the well-known question: “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” Commanding the trees to “think twice” is a romantic hyperbole that may not come off, and the ultimate meaning is no match for the descriptions. But it is not disturbingly dissociated from these, and it does not seem unacceptably sentimental.
On his deathbed Frost forgave Pound his shitticisms, as the dying David Hume is said to have repented his Scotticisms. He told Pound’s daughter that Ezra was a “great romantic,” which looks like his way of saying that he himself was. “Romantic love,” he went on, “as in stories and poems. I tremble with it.”
In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan exclaims: “I am a romantic.” This is not a story which trembles with romantic love, but it is a romance in which some of Frost’s ideas are prefigured: duality, Job’s sufferings, about which he wrote a verse play, and secrecy, about which he wrote a poem:
We dance round in a ring and sup- pose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
For Frost, truth was a secret which lay somewhere in the middle of things, and which belonged to the last century’s hoard of innermost secrets. He was dependent on such ideas, and on the hereditary language of romantic people—on words like, “irregular,” “outlaw,” “fear,” “away,” “alone,” “bereft,” “strange” and, in the figurative sense, “steal.” The circumstances of his life were to require these words, some of which he took as titles, and to require the irony with which he was occasionally to use them.
The language of romanticism—of that part of it, at least, which has addressed itself to suffering and constraint—evokes a life-history dominated by the imagination of withdrawal, and by the idea of the sad exception. The exceptional person will suffer, at the hands of his family or community, and will be like an orphan. His father may be such as to cause him to resemble one, or to imagine himself one. For nature’s orphan, sorrows, solitudes, and dangerous escapes will be in store, journeys through the Dismal Swamp, journeys from which he is generally able to return, since what he generally wants is to be both at home and away. At the same time, the orphan may prove to be an outlaw or monster, a maltreater of orphans and fathers: in Dostoevsky, as in other nineteenth-century writers, the monster is peculiarly the man who has an impulse to murder his father. Since the roles of orphan and outlaw are defined by the enmities that run in families and can pass from parent to child, that man may also come to resemble the father he wishes to attack.
In helping to form the individual consciousness, these roles can often, as a species of opposite, give rise to the phenomenon, or phantom, of duality—which was later to become the phenomenon, or phantom, of multiplicity, of the single Steppenwolf’s “thousand souls,” for instance. Orphan or outlaw may function as a second self to the self that stands in need of the mother, or of the family created in adult life. A conflict between forces which drive you from home and those which keep you there would appear to underlie certain of the double lives of romantic literature, which teaches more lessons than it is thought to teach about family life. It teaches that sorrows can make you sore, and that orphan and outlaw, victim and monster, can be one and the same.
The art of withdrawal, as practiced by Frost, may seem to have been announced by his early journey of escape, from which he returned but which did not rid him of the feeling that Elinor was rejecting him, and it may also seem to correspond to the behavior of the person who pretends to be an orphan in order to break, and yet not to break, with family life. His victim or vagrant self was joined to a self which stayed at home, and to another which was famous and respected, and which flew to the Crimea to talk tough to Khrushchev, who then painfully embarrassed him by sending missiles to Cuba. He liked to insist that he preferred “grief” to “grievance,” and yet his biography trembles with old scores. With more than his share of griefs, he could imagine he was being persecuted, and be a grief to others, and a terror. In the romantic parlance of an earlier time, he was uncommon and unaccountable: the poet of common humanity can be found to lack it.
Such is the strange case of Robert Frost—seen in the context of the imaginative literature on which he relied for an account of his plight. He had his own way of being, and of having to be, this sort of creature, and his way was that of the inhabitant of a community which has admired its outlaws and been impatient with orphans: so that the political Frost (like the political Pound) was never the orphan’s best friend. But then he also belonged to a world at large in which artists have often been hostile and afflicted human beings, anxious for power and sunk in the politics of their hostility.
Frost resented the name “escapist”: “a man may climb a tree and still not be an escapist. He may go up there to pick something.” But he was willing to describe himself as of “irregular” life and as “outside the law.” As a Harvard Overseer, he was invited to teach at the university as well, which would have been against the regulations. Remembering the rows and anomalies which had attended his Amherst and other academic stints, he wrote: “I am prepared to hear you say next, as I am always hearing in this irregular life of mine, that an exception could probably be made in my case. But I am tired of living outside the law.” This particular multiple role—that of the outlaw overseer and seer—was declined. But “my impulse to flight,” as he put it, had very nearly got him into the Harvard Latin Department.
Frost’s withdrawals enter his poems, as one would expect, at an early point. In one of his first poems, “Into My Own,” there’s a vista of dark woods:
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land…
As for the loved ones left behind,
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
But if truth lies in the middle of those woods, Frost cast a doubt in the first edition of his first volume of poems, A Boy’s Will, where he provided a gloss on this poem, one of a collection of glosses with which he intended to introduce the reader to the pattern of contradictory moods to be noticed in the book: “The youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having forsworn the world.”
Richard Poirier writes brilliantly about the protective syntax of “Into My Own,” showing how the poem’s imagination of withdrawal is modified by its conditional tenses, its “shoulds” and “woulds”:
The young man has actually forsworn nothing. In his language it is clear that he is solidly planted this side of any world elsewhere. Intricacies of grammar alone indicate how little he is “persuaded” that he can “forswear the world” or that he will become “more sure” for doing so. He is safe within his syntax, his form. Like all of Frost’s seemingly apocalyptic efforts, this one is full of hedgings…. There can be no verifications for the somewhat plaintive promise that he would continue on a journey that he has never started, a journey which would in any event depend on conditions (“dark trees” that “stretched away unto the edge of doom”) that do not exist. The degree to which Frost accepted this situation as one in which he characteristically found himself might be suggested by the fact that the young man who is trapped at home in this first poem of the first volume is still trapped at home—restrained from extra-vagance beyond form even while imagining what it might be like to wander—in the last poem of his third volume.
This is not the only Frost poem which fixes a forswearing but reluctant eye on woods and other prospects. In the most acclaimed of his forsworn forswearings, “Stopping by Woods,” he decides not to enter his neighbor’s woods because he has “promises to keep.” In a much later poem, “Trespass,” different woods mean different moods. This time, they are “my woods,” and some extravagant and “unaccountable” stranger has been into them: a violation of property has taken place. The trespasser has been trespassed against, and this trespass is unconditionally condemned.
Escape can be called “stealing” by Frost, or “stealing away.” Romantic people have loved the word in its figurative sense, while also using it, from time to time, in ways which bring out and restore its primary meaning—the offense against property. The word turns up in a letter from Frost to Untermeyer of 1926. A few years before, he’d been in trouble over a tall story he’d been telling about how he’d compelled the philandering Joseph Warren Beach to make an honest woman of his research assistant. Beach had protested, and he’d been compelled to make amends. Now, to Untermeyer, he writes, not all that abashed:
J.W. really seems to have been serious in that marriage. I made up my mind he should be as serious as lay in me to make him. He rather played it on me the day he used me for a chaperone to sit in his Ford car for respectability while he stole off in whatever takes the place of alders in Minnesota. I could see he thought it was funny to be so romantic at my expense. So to be equally funny and romantic at his I went straight on from that moment and inside of two days had him sewed up in marriage for the rest of his life.
Romantic stealing can be both erotic and comic, as it is made to seem here. Savage and full of fear, his humor could also quietly contrive to cramp his escapes. His young man “forswearing the world” is funny in rather the same way that Huckleberry Finn’s “poor prisoner, forsook by the world” is funny: the jokes are for safety’s sake, and respectability’s, but they are those of playful, truthful romantic books in each of which forsaking and forsook amount to the same thing and are taken very seriously.
Frost used this word, “steal,” to make a political point, scored off the welfare-state economist:
‘Twas his idea that for the public health,
So that the poor won’t have to steal by stealth,
We now and then should take an equaliser.
In defense of property, he fudges up a tautology here, as Thompson does when he stresses the sly romantic character of Frost’s poetic apprenticeship at Lawrence High School: “Whenever he was in the mood for self-indulgence, he secretly and even furtively stole time for writing another poem.” The sentence conveys what is usually at stake when Frost steals in a figurative sense: it is his true self that does so, but what that true self does is transgress. As with many figurative uses of the word by romantic writers, the claims of a community, and of a family, are both acknowledged and denied. And they are acknowledged in terms of property: solitariness, that is to say, is theft. At other times in Frost, and in other words, the claims in question are acknowledged unequivocally:
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
“Whether they work together or apart”.
You’d think that Winters might have been mollified by all this. It is evidence that romanticism is capable of thinking about its moods and impulses, and that some of its thoughts are inherent in the language itself—a language in which words like “sorrow” and “sorry” and “sore,” words like “wandering” and “error,” are intimately related.
As he grew older, Frost became convinced that socialism was theft. A number of his actions and statements bear witness to an escape from the community which led to the solitariness of success, and to a narcissistic contempt for failure: “God seems to me to be something which wants us to win.” His fears made him famous, and they made him harsh. He is not at his most endearing when he is affecting to balance the rival claims of mercy and justice, with the relevant secret suspended somewhere in the middle.
Near the end of his life, in the poem “Away!” he was still threatening to steal off, some day, and die:
Unless I’m wrong
I but obey
The urge of a song:
That song was a favorite with him, “Shenandoah”:
Away I’m bound to go
‘Cross the wide Missouri.
Frost’s poem reverses the order of two of these words and arranges them so as to obtain a pun on “bound” and to summon up, for a double life, its supreme double meaning. “Shenandoah” is about love and work, and the “urge” Frost obeys is not an urge, in the song itself, but an obligation. Crossing the Missouri, therefore, isn’t the same—though it sounds it—as lighting out for the Territory, like Huck: it might be said that we all get accustomed to confusing the two things. The song supplies the title for Frost’s poem, presumably: but the title could as well have been supplied by a more exotic, and ecstatic, song—Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
In this poem by Frost, which anticipates an impending death in old age, his young man’s preoccupation with an imaginary suicide, and with the people it “would” leave behind, is resumed. The forsook forsaker reassures these people:
There is no one I
Am put out with
Or put out by.
And in the last verse he is promising to come back from the dead:
And I may return
With what I learn
From having died.
The poem also has a touch of what deserves to be the spiritual drifter’s favorite spiritual, “Steal away to Jesus,” and a further poem takes this as the text for a fireside chat:
The song says. Steal away and stay away.
Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family—
But not much in between unless a college.
Be an orphan! “Don’t join too many gangs”! He then lists gangs you can join, and doesn’t even mention the one you have to join in order to earn a living. He certainly had a very funny way of joining his colleges.
There is pathos in his stealing and staying at home, and a strength which sustains more than one of his best achievements. These urges are subtly incorporated in the contrast between the “heavenward” and “earthward” of two of his finest poems: “The Silken Tent,” a love poem, and “To Earthward,” the word-perfect poem of a romantic puritan, in which he hugs his griefs and hurts and punishments, and moves, from an old idea of pleasure in pain, into his own. And the same urges are present in another of his masterpieces, “After Apple-Picking.” This poem about a farmer’s surfeit of apples becomes a fading into woods, and a tribute to the most potent of romanticism’s orphans and victims—Keats. Harvest, russets, stubble, cider—this might be his “Ode to Autumn” if it weren’t for its special closeness to the “Nightingale” ode. Both of the odes, and the Frost poem, have drowsiness in them, but Frost’s drowsiness appears to imitate that of Keats as he listens to the bird’s song. Frost’s “I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight” is Keats’s “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.”
Frost’s poem says:
I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
This is not like a reference to a load of apples, and the sleep that comes on him is less like the hibernation he speaks of than like the last sleep of all. But it does not make light of the beginning of the poem, with its two-pointed orchard ladder striving “toward heaven still.” Keats’s heaven is an escape, hallowed by the power art has to protect and console, and halted after a while. From his heavenly flight—“Away! away! for I will fly to thee…”—he falls earthward, to the troubles of his daily life. Frost’s heaven might almost be a heaven of hard work, which would include the hard “work of knowing” investigated in Poirier’s book, where it is seen as not only work but play.
The work of knowing—Poirier’s is a striving phrase. It sets out to assemble, in the one activity, physical labor, lovemaking, and the making of poems and discoveries, and Poirier persuades you that the same work, and play, can be observed in the tightenings and relentings of Frost’s love poem, “The Silken Tent,” which points heavenward too. The Jacob’s ladder of the apple-picking poem stands, and strives, for a great deal; there is a great deal for the poet to lapse from. At the same time, Frost is someone for whom even work can have an aspect of withdrawal, as it has here, where it is meant to serve as withdrawal’s opposite. He was a man who could believe that you were liable to be called an escapist if you climbed a tree to pick fruit. And even pain can have that aspect, as “To Earthward” attests.
His stealing and staying can be encountered where they might not be expected—in his prosody. He promised, and performed, a dualistic meter, pledged to convention and to the vagaries of the speaking voice. His theory of “the sound of sense” held that a sentence is “a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung,” and that sentence sounds are “apprehended by the ear. They are gathered by the ear from the vernacular and brought into books.” He maintained that
there are the very regular pre-established accent and measure of blank verse; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get these into strained relation. I like to drag and break the intonation across the meter as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle.
So the sound of sense is irregular, and the speaking voice a sort of stealing.
The tension he hoped for, between freedom and form, is there in the poem about the tree at his window. “Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground” is the vernacular at stumbling-point, as far as rhythm goes, and as a line about a tree it is monstrously good. In “Never again would birds’ song be the same,” Eve’s voice in the garden imparts an “oversound” to the song of the birds. “Her tone of meaning but without the words”: in that line we hear the sound of sense, and an explanation of it. He was able to prove the theory both on the page and on the platform: few poets can have read their poems so well, even though he tended to run for President in his words of introduction, compounding the blandishments of the weaker pieces.
His poem “Design,” about a spider and its prey, must have been a success in public, and it is possible to want to look for some theatrical—and theological—ploy in the question: “What but design of darkness to appall?” But he meant it, I think, just as much as he meant to make a show of it. He can’t have meant that the world is programmed to give people frights. But he believed in dark designs. He lived, he once said, in “a world of suspicion.”
In the Twenties, he gave offense by boasting or joking that America, unlike Russia, had nothing terrible for writers to write about. You could not write like Dostoevsky about America. Well, it is true that he was never in external danger during his adult life, and that while America was sitting at his feet, Russia, in the name of the community, was murdering Mandelstam, surrounding him with gangsters, literary and political, and sending him on an orphan’s flight which lasted several years and ended in a prison camp. Even so, Frost still managed to suffer.
There is something else which could be said about these two writers. Mandelstam did not conspire against other poets, and this may be one of the reasons why you are often able to feel, in reading about him, that he was not afraid. Frost was.
November 10, 1977