William Pritchard’s “literary life” of Robert Frost is a persuasive antidote to Lawrance Thompson’s official biography, which reached its demolishing conclusion in 1976 with its third and final volume. Its portrait of the poet inspired one reviewer to conclude that he was “a monster”; another that he was “a mean-spirited megalomaniac”; still another that “a more hateful human being cannot have lived.” Whatever its other qualities, Thompson’s biography obviously had its culturally cathartic uses. It released long-suppressed irritation at someone whose image of folksy nobility had become overexposed on the literary scene, and whose poetry remained stubbornly challenging to the current academic taste for literary modernism, as represented by Eliot and Pound.
The three volumes were useful in more obvious ways. Thompson was appointed to his task by Frost in 1939, given free access to all materials and the benefit of the tapes of extensive interviews, on file at the University of Virginia, which are said to be amazingly forthright, more forthright than anything Thompson quotes. They are not alluded to in Pritchard’s book. Thompson managed to assemble more information about Frost’s life than anyone else ever had, including Frost himself. But as is often the case with literary scholars who are reputed to know “everything” about a writer, Thompson did not in fact know how to read him. Above all he did not know, as Pritchard does, how to listen to the poems, the letters, and the talk. This is especially crippling when the writer insists again and again that we should attend with “the ear on the speaking voice,” and elevates to a governing principle of writing and reading what an intelligent child learns fast enough in the schoolyard: that, as Frost says in an early letter, “the sentence sound often says more than the words” and can “convey a meaning opposite to the words.”
Even his casual sentences give warning of having multiple warheads. Years ago I heard of a dinner party at which the hostess, turning to the poet after a lengthy talk with his biographer, remarked that “your Mr. Thompson is a charming man.” Frost’s reply—“Yes, but that isn’t enough, is it?”—can be taken as a put down of Thompson, but it was more likely, or also, a comment on the vulgarity of being a literary hostess. Years of close attendance on someone continually given to inflections of this kind took its toll, and while the portrait waited, as it were, in the closet—Frost forbade publication of any part of it in his lifetime—it accumulated signs of wear and tear, of old scores unsettled. Thompson’s index reads like a prosecutor’s brief. The entry for “Frost, Robert Lee (26 Mar. 1874–29 June 1963)” is followed by subject headings like “Brute,” “Hate,” “Insanity,” “Jealousy,” “Murderer”—the typical bit of adduced evidence is that Frost “used razor words in public to achieve a murderous revenge”—“Spoiled Child,” “Vindictive.”
Pritchard means to correct this bias. In its handling of biographical material his book is at once affectionate and strong, making no undue apologies for a man who having said that “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches” not infrequently proved it. It tries to correct the oscillations of taste that have blurred Frost’s reputation as a poet and as a man. Treated for decades as a master of cagey folk wisdom, he was, beginning in 1953 with Randall Jarrell’s essay “The Other Frost,” reinterpreted as “dark” and ironic; revered as someone who promised to take Mount Parnassus into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, he was exposed by Thompson as a holy terror. Pritchard’s balance and moderation serve the life very well indeed, but they serve poetry, I would suggest, far less.
Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874, and when his father died he moved to Massachusetts and, later, New Hampshire, near relatives. He was ten, with a sister Jeanie, two years younger, and his mother, a schoolteacher who tutored him in English and American literature and encouraged the beginnings of what was to become a command of Greek and Latin. In 1895 he married Elinor White, his co-valedictorian in high school, and managed at first to support her and a growing family by stints of farming, school-teaching, and doing odd jobs, and was also helped by a small annuity from his paternal grandfather. He spent about two years at Harvard, after an early, brief period at Dartmouth, and discovered what was to be a lifelong admiration for a member of the faculty whose classes he never got to take, William James.
For over forty years, until the weekend of her fatal heart attacks in March 1938—when she did not summon him to her bedside—Elinor and Robert Frost appear to have had a passionate life together, intellectually, physically, and emotionally, a life beset by some bad scenes, cold silences, and a series of family tragedies. Of the six children, two died soon after birth (there may have been at least one other unrecorded, born dead and buried); Frost’s favorite daughter, Marjorie, after giving birth to a child, died hideously at age twenty-nine of puerperal fever; his son Carol shot himself at age thirty-eight while alone in a house with his sixteen-year-old son; his daughter Irma had to be confined, as was Frost’s sister Jeanie, in a state mental hospital. Only Lesley, the second child, managed to live a full and accomplished life. In 1938 Frost had the good fortune to find a companion and secretary in Kathleen Morrison. While remaining devoted to her husband and family, she managed to bring an unaccustomed comfort and order to his routines.
Crucial to the shape of his life and career was the decision in 1912 to go, at age thirty-eight, with his wife and four children, to live in England, where they stayed till 1915. He had published only a scattering of poems at home but had with him in manuscript all of what was to be his first book, A Boy’s Will, published in England in 1913, his second, North of Boston, published there in 1914, and most of a third, Mountain Interval, which came out in 1916 on his return home. It was from England that he was able to launch his career in America, helped enormously by reviews from Pound and from Edward Thomas, the brilliant English critic-poet who was killed in World War I. “Edward Thomas,” he said, “was the only brother I ever had.”
Returning home Frost was soon able to make a living by his poetry, public readings, and teaching at various colleges and universities—Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Michigan, Breadloaf, and, for most of his life, Amherst. He resigned his first appointment at Amherst in 1920 because of the liberal education policies of Alexander Meiklejohn, its president, who also refused to fire Stark Young although, according to Frost, his homosexuality was a threat to the students. More likely Young’s popularity as a teacher was a threat to Frost.
Over the years he found he knew nearly all the important poets of his time. He had some cautious but friendly exchanges with Stevens, as in 1935 and again in 1940 at Key West. “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about—subjects.” “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about—bric-à-brac.” With Pound things were more turbulent. After Frost sought him out in London in 1913 Pound took him to see Yeats, introduced him to other literary figures, and worked hard on his behalf, but Frost soon resented what he considered efforts to appropriate him and feared that he would get into trouble at home because of Pound’s complaints that Frost’s work had been neglected by American editors. Later on, in the mid-Thirties, there were nasty exchanges of letters between them when, after Frost’s Norton lectures at Harvard, Pound accused Frost of having disparaged him (no copies of the lectures now exist).
But it was largely Frost’s influence in the Eisenhower administration, where he had a close friend in Sherman Adams, that brought about Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1958. For a time Frost felt himself even closer to President Kennedy, who invited him to read at his inauguration and arranged for a meeting between Frost and Khrushchev in the USSR in 1962. The alliance, as he liked to think of it, of “poetry and power” quickly soured when Frost reported to the press a statement from Khrushchev that the United States was “too liberal to fight.” The statement had never been made: Frost simply supposed that Khrushchev would have felt that way. Kennedy shunned him thereafter.
The last decade of Frost’s life was a triumphant one, notably when he went to England in 1957 to receive honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, to revive old associations, and to make a few new ones, as with E.M. Forster. He also saw much of T.S. Eliot and his wife, and the two poets put behind them the rivalry of many years. Frost was brought nearly to tears at a dinner in his honor, when Eliot, in a toast of genuine affection and admiration, concluded: “The relation of Dante to Florence, of Shakespeare to Warwickshire, of Goethe to the Rhineland, the relation of Robert Frost to New England. He has that universality. And I think the beginning of his career, and the fact that his first publication and reputation was made in this country, and that he is now hailed in this country universally as the most distinguished American poet, points to that fact.”
If, as I believe, the three great American poets of this century so far are Eliot, Frost, and Stevens, then Frost’s accomplishment cannot be accounted for, any more than can theirs, by concentrating on the social circumstances of his life. Pritchard is writing a biographical, not a critical study, and isn’t required to go into extensive interpretations of particular poems, but even so his readings tend to be far too cautious. He seems content to show how the life and the poetry share in certain recurrent forms of guardedness, a temperamental and intellectual mischievousness. Reading the poems in this way has the effect of turning some of them into little more than language games, and of treating as light verse still others, for which Jarrell made, as Pritchard suspiciously phrases it, “large claims,” such as “Neither Out Far nor In Deep” and “Provide, Provide.” When it comes to the difficult, ambitious poems, which make “large claims” for themselves, reticence in interpretation tends to take away also from an understanding of Frost’s life. I’m thinking of poems like “Mowing” and “After Apple-Picking,” like “Home Burial,” “The Wood-Pile,” and “The Most of It,” and several sonnets which have few equals in English—“The Oven Bird,” “Hyla Brook,” and, especially, “Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same.”
Pritchard seems to worry that if he tries to uncover the sources of genius and power in Frost’s writing he will compromise his efforts to restore to the man a proper measure of human ordinariness. Like other twentieth-century literary biographies, this one is good about literary careerism, but less good about the more mysterious human will and energy that are expressed in the poet’s writing, in the traceable act of his writing. When barely twenty years old, Frost could remark to a sympathetic literary editor that “even in my failures I find all the promise I require to justify the astonishing magnitude of my ambition.” Such ambition—and its attendant human costs—isn’t to be understood by any chronicle of merely critical successes and failures. From very early on, from his teens and through long years of haphazard employment, while he held back from publication enough poems for several volumes, Frost, for all his extraordinary flair for public relations, was, I think, less ambitious about his career than about creating a mythology of poetry and poetic performance that was attuned to mythologies about the cycles in nature of creativity and barrenness.
You find yourself, according to the Frostian mythology, against a background of “black and utter chaos,” and you have nothing to depend on except, as William James would also have it, some capacity to act, to do, to shape. There are no large organizing principles, no structures to be discovered, and you had best begin with manageable things, like the making of poems or baskets or gardens, or like making love. If you are a poet, you make metaphors, with the caution that pushed too far they, like other relationships, will break down, or you discover how inflections of voice can give you some leverage when it comes to already existing shapes or figures of speech.
Not a lot of leverage, but enough perhaps to keep you from being overawed. Like the mower in “The Tuft of Flowers,” you keep “turning” over or making tropes of what has been done by others; you don’t let yourself get buried under accumulations of leaves or snow—or the writings of the past—which might otherwise get in the way of your intimacy with things. A poem is an act of making, but so, too, may be any other kind of intense work, like planting seeds, and if, of the two, the poem seems the more significant, that is only because it shows a greater self-consciousness about the mysterious effects it produces, on both writer and reader.
When Frost defines “the figure a poem makes” (in a preface of that title written in 1939) he claims that “the figure is the same as for love.” He is being no less specific about “love” than he is, in the poems, about work. He means the physical enactment, not a sentiment merely but an encounter that can produce harmony, even revelation where there might be fracture or discord, as when, in a metaphor, two things are joined the more pleasurably because their differences are never wholly dissolved into likenesses. Thus the vocabulary by which he describes poetic “pleasure” in the same preface, a vocabulary that usually draws from his interpreters a fastidious blank, is in the mode of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, graphically and wittily sexual. “No one should really hold,” he writes, “that the ecstasy should be static and should stand still in one place…. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events.” About conjugal sex, scarcely a preoccupation of his “modernist” contemporaries, Frost is the most mythological poet since Milton. Poetic making, like planting in springtime or sexual love at any time, is an effort, as he says in “Education by Poetry,” to “believe the thing into existence…to believe the future in, to believe the hereafter in.”
The idea that we may be coaxed into making form by common things and common desires is something Eliot found antithetical, given his disposition for “The inner freedom from the practical desire, / The release from action and suffering…” in “Burnt Norton.” Of course it could be said that what Eliot desires of form—that it offer a semblance of some eternal reality—is precisely what, according to Frost, should not even be asked of it. And that, in my view, is reason enough for thinking that, of the two, Frost is the more radical intellectually, though not therefore the greater poet. Frost often celebrates the fact that any form is inadequate to the insatiably spiritualized human need (or emptiness) expressed so poignantly by Eliot’s poetry, especially when that need or emptiness is transposed into extravagant suggestions that not only the self but the whole civilization is culturally and spiritually a wasteland.
In a remarkable letter to the Amherst College student newspaper in 1935, at a time when he was most anxious to deflate the pretensions, as he saw them, of the “modernist” ethos, Frost remarks that “anyone who has achieved the least form to be sure of it, is lost to the larger excruciations.” That last phrase takes on an elegant disdain in light of his earlier remarks in the same letter where he disparages prophets of the twentieth-century apocalypse: “It is immodest of a man,” he writes, “to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.” He is not saying that the twentieth century is better than the modernists think it is, only that it is not necessarily worse than any other.
Frost is a poet virtually without cultural nostalgia, and part of the reason is that he does not imagine any time when, really, there was a God out there to depend on. He looks, as James put it in Pragmatism, only for that “truth that grows up inside all finite experiences,” and he knows, again with James, that these experiences “lean on each other, but the whole of them, if whole there be, leans on nothing.” There is nothing out there to be longed for or looked to. Our job here is to make whatever local sense we can. Believe in poetry only if and because it works, moment by moment, to give pleasure. Frost, for whom James, with Emerson, provides a kind of sourcebook, is essentially paraphrasing Pragmatism in his conclusion to the Amherst letter:
The background is hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos; and against that background any small man-made figure of order and concentration…. To me any little form I assert upon it is velvet, as the saying is, and to be considered for how much more it is than nothing. If I were a Platonist I should have to consider it, I suppose, for how much less it is than everything.
To accuse Frost of insularity, as some critics do, is to praise him without wanting to and to speak in ignorance of an American intellectual tradition that he belongs to, and that Eliot chose to forgo, despite the much-noticed echoes of Whitman in his poetry. The difference between the modernism of Eliot and the Emersonian revisionism of Frost is the difference, to put it simply, between yearning for a “still point” and delight in “a momentary stay against confusion.”
Particularly when demonstrating the shifts of voice in Frost’s poems, Pritchard gives some excellent examples of how the reader is never allowed to “stay” very long with any conclusive interpretation. Frost writes as one convinced by Emerson’s “The Poet,” that “an imaginative book renders us much more service at first by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterwards when we arrive at the precise sense of the author.” So that when he talks about “pleasure” he is not thinking of a relaxed or relaxing state of mind, but of an agitated or excited one. Pleasure comes from working hard with language or, for that matter, at apple picking, until you discover the strains, tensions, and exaltations that give birth to things.
Pleasure is a matter of relations, whether between people or between sentences. “Sentences,” he remarks in a letter, should “talk to each other as two or more speakers do in drama.” His theory of sentence sounds is a theory of conflicted relations. Like Wordsworth, he tried to bring elements of ordinary language into a poetry that hitherto found it uncongenial, to create a New English poetry. In many letters he sent home from England between 1912 and 1915 he meant to provide his friends with theoretical ammunition in defense of his kind of poetry—Eliot in his critical essays was to do no less for his own—and in one of these he remarks that
there are the very regular preestablished 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 metre as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle.
In poetry, and in life, Frost was not interested so much in reconciliations as in generative oppositions. To the degree that he was preceded in this by Wordsworth, the similarity points mostly to an important difference between them. He claimed, quite rightly I think, that in the long narrative poems in North of Boston, like “A Servant to Servants,” he had “dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above,” but he never acknowledged, and neither have his interpreters, that the two poets are nearly identical in their theories of poetic “strain” and of the pleasures it affords.
In his prefaces and the appendices to them, Wordsworth argues that poetic pleasure requires active exertions or what he calls “intellectual operations,” and he directly links these to sexual appetite. It would appear that for him, too, the relation of one term to another in a metaphor is something like a sexual relationship between two people, and so is the relation between ordinary speech rhythms and poetic meter. Thus Wordsworth writes in 1800 that “if metre be superadded thereto [to a “selection of the language really spoken by men”], I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind.” In 1913 Frost says much the same thing, merely reversing the terms. “If one is to be a poet,” he remarks, “he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre.” The hint of a sexual analogue emerges in Wordsworth’s word “dissimilitude,” and the implications are made explicit later in the preface. He refers there to
the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it, take their origin: it is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feeling.
Not much is left out. Taste, moral feeling, the “spring of the activity of our minds,” our perceptions of metaphor, ordinary conversation—all are made somehow inseparable from “sexual appetite” whose direction is obviously that of a man for a woman. Sexuality is brought into the passage with a surprising abruptness, however, and is just as quickly dropped, never again to return as a subject in any of Wordsworth’s critical writings. There is a nervousness that I think derives from a fear of seeming to exert too masculine an aggressiveness in or on the world—and this is where Frost appears, within the traditions of romantic poetry, singularly without qualm.
One need only read his Paris Review interview,1 where he says, “The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association.” In his poems Wordsworth occasionally places himself in a sexually masculine relationship to nature, “forcing my way,” as he puts it in the poem “Nutting,” upon “a virgin scene,” which he then proceeds to plunder. But such an intrusion or expropriation invariably leads him to expressions of pain or fear, and he casts in an admiring light conditions just barely this side of death.2 Desert places, dark woods, falling snow, falling leaves, the wind in the trees, these are always issuing invitations to Frost, asking if perhaps he does not find what is “dark and deep” also so “lovely” that he will simply give in to it. He refuses, often quite gruffly. Keats may ask to “fade away into the forest dim” with his nightingale, but when, as in “Come in,” Frost hears a thrush singing in a dark wood, there’s no mistake about the assertiveness of ordinary speech against putative poetic blandishments: “I would not come in. / I meant not even if asked, / And I hadn’t been.”
A poem that helps to illustrate these matters in a high-spirited way is “All Revelation.” It is an exhilarated dream vision in which instruments of penetration—the phallus, the mind, the cathode ray, the eyes—go to work upon the world’s body. But the poem allows that none of these things, nothing by itself alone, is more than an apparition, none more “real” than the stone that stands in Greek mythology for Cybele, the Great Mother. The world and the instruments for getting into it reveal themselves, that is, only by and in an active relation to each other:
A head thrusts in as for the view,
But where it is it thrusts in from
Or what it is it thrusts into
By that Cyb’laean avenue,
And what can of its coming come,
And whither it will be withdrawn,
And what take hence or leave behind,
These things the mind has pondered on
A moment and still asking gone.
Strange apparition of the mind!
But the impervious geode
Was entered, and its inner crust
Of crystals with a ray cathode
At every point and facet glowed
In answer to the mental thrust.
Eyes seeking the response of eyes
Bring out the stars, bring out the flowers,
Thus concentrating earth and skies
So none need be afraid of size.
All revelation has been ours.
The last stanza has a Yeatsian rhythm that is intentionally made to stumble for a moment by the rough movement of the next-to-last line, “So none need be afraid of size.” This is a poet’s vision, but, the tone implies, it can also be anybody’s. One would have to be deaf to say that what goes on here is what goes on also in Stevens when he, too, wishes for a concentration of earth and skies. As in “Sunday Morning,” “The sky will be much friendlier then than now, / A part of labor and a part of pain, / And next in glory to enduring love, / Not this dividing and indifferent blue.” Frost and Stevens belong together in a tradition that includes Emerson and James, and they are more alike in their ideas than either ever chose to admit. But they are importantly different in sound, in style, in the way they take themselves.
“A man’s ideas are his ideas,” as Frost remarks in another letter. “His style is the way he carries himself toward his ideas.” Style “is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward.” Frost’s poetry is obsessed with movement, with transitions, and this goes beyond mere shiftiness or mischievousness of tone. It is rooted in a passionate belief about life and creativity, and it abounds in the poems about change, about brooks that rush past or go underground or whose waves flip back against themselves, about walks away from home and back again, about apple picking or mowing that “leaves the hay to make,” about darting birds and spring pools that will go “up by trees to bring dark foliage on,” about the fall, in both senses of the term, and about the spring.
How is anything ever preserved or saved in so transitory a world? “In art, politics, school, church, business, love or marriage—in a piece of work or in a career,” he says in one of his lectures, “strongly spent is synonymous with kept.” It is at such points in Frost that poetry and American pragmatism discover each other.
April 25, 1985