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 It includes, in addition to all the poems found in Edward Connery Lathem’s now-superseded The Poetry of Robert Frost, a number of heretofore unpublished verses, a few short stories and short plays, occasional essays, letters, transcriptions of lectures, and so forth.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,
‘Come out! Come out!’—
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
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.
There are “virtually but two” meters in English, strict and loose iambic, Frost often claimed, and he contentedly accepted the pair of them as his lot. His contentment seems the result of a combination of factors. There was, perhaps foremost, his faith in metrical inexhaustibility: “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless.” No less than Pound, coiner of the Modernist injunction “Make it new,” Frost sought novelty: “The object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other” and “All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book.” But he was bolstered by his confidence that he would not have to venture very far, either stylistically or geographically, to do just that: when set against the venerable framework of the iambic line, the American spoken vernacular, particularly its rural New England variety, would sing a novel and enduring song.
In addition, Frost by temperament revealed in hidden effects, and conventional prosody teemed with opportunities of concealment. He felt no impulse to flaunt an outlandish appearance on the page. In many of his contemporaries (Moore, Cummings, Williams, Eliot, Pound) we find poems whose simple appearance—by virtue of singularities of line length or stanzaic configuration or spelling or punctuation—suggests eccentricity. But there isn’t a single poem in Frost—nowhere in five-hundred-plus pages—that doesn’t greet the reader with a look of staid aplomb.
Finally, conventional prosody seemed to offer clear-cut tests of prowess. Established forms were an athletic field on which performance could be objectively evaluated. The formal burdens imposed by, say, the Miltonic sonnet furnished a trial by fire. Prowess, athleticism, trials—wherever Frost discusses the poet’s vocation, these are the words, and metaphors, that recur.
When undertaking something prosodically adventurous, he was likely to pursue one of two contrary approaches. The first was to set up a pattern which, by dint of its rigor, seemed destined for an eventual loosening—and then to follow it punctiliously. Consider the opening stanza of “Provide, Provide”:
The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag…
The reader naturally presumes that either these tight iambic tetrameters or the exactly rhymed triplets will “bend” a bit, but throughout the poem’s remaining six stanzas Frost scrupulously adheres to the prototype. With regard to rhyme, he does much the same thing—only raising the stakes by one—in the quatrains of “Triple Bronze,” which begins:
The Infinite’s being so wide
Is the reason the Powers provide
For inner defense my hide.
For next defense outside…
(Frost’s friend Edward Thomas went a step further in “Out in the dark …” by assembling exactly rhymed cinquains.) Here is one side to Frost the maker: a man who guarantees that, like any honorable tradesman, he will give “good weight”—will fulfill any prosodic bargain he strikes with the reader. Although English is “rhyme poor,” especially compared to a language like Italian (the source of a number of the forms he favored), Frost regularly reminds us that he will not “stoop” to those off-rhymes or metrical compromises with which other, less exacting poets meet the demands of form.
And then there’s a Frost of another fashion. There’s the poet who delights in the fabrication of slight irregularities—in twisting the form without snapping it outright. Typically, the poem follows form rigidly for most of its length, until disarranging it in either the penultimate or ultimate stanza (one of many stylistic affinities he holds with Elizabeth Bishop). Some small prosodic modification will mark the poem’s close. Often something “funny” happens to the rhyme: a triplet will materialize in a poem composed solely of couplets or scattered rhymes (“The Cow in Apple Time,” “The Subverted Flower”); a rhyme will surface in a new place (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”); a feminine rhyme will spring from a bank of purely masculine rhymes (“A Drumlin Woodchuck,” “The Cocoon,” “Once by the Pacific,” “The Figure in the Doorway,” “The Bad Island—Easter”); a rhyme whose mate is more distant than all the others will create a muted finish (“After Apple-Picking,” “A Time to Talk”). Or perhaps an off-rhyme will complete a lyric written in exact rhymes, as in “Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight”:
God once spoke to people by name.
The sun once imparted its flame.
One impulse persists as our breath;
The other persists as our faith.
Or, conversely, an unrhymed poem, like “The Old Barn at the Bottom of the Fogs,” will conclude with a thumping rhyme:
Yes, right I was the locks were props outside;
And it had almost given him troubled dreams
To think that though he could not lock himself in,
The cheapest tramp that came along that way
Could mischievously lock him in to stay.
It’s no coincidence that only the last line of “The Road Not Taken” is metrically ambiguous:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The reader stumbles slightly, briefly—doesn’t know whether “made” or “all” or both carry a stress, uncertainly registers how the final syllable of “difference” calls for sturdy, rhyme-upholding emphasis, and feels the whole line tipping, as nowhere else in the poem, toward pentameter. Of course Frost could have righted things at a stroke—converted the last line into “And that has made the difference” or “Which has made all the difference” or something of the sort. But he wants us to stumble: it’s precisely in our vertigo that the poetry lies.
“‘Out, Out—“’ which recounts a boy’s death in a wood-cutting accident, is written in a burly blank verse. One line, and one line only (as is also true of “The Death of the Hired Man”), is missing a foot. Or you might say, one line is missing a hand, since it’s the one that documents a lost limb, with a life soon to follow:
The boy’s first outcry was a rue- ful laugh,
As he swung toward them hold- ing up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know,
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes.
Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.
If that climactic line—“So. But the hand was gone already”—feels slightly truncated, it ought to; it records a dismemberment. (Note also the cunning heartbreak of the phrasing and placement of “the boy saw all,” suggesting that the boy immediately perceived the worst. We have to wait a couple of lines to ascertain—compounding the tragedy—that he doesn’t begin to grasp his complete undoing.)
Frost’s fondness for placing an irregularity in the penultimate stanza—as in “The Thatch” or “A Nature Note”—might be seen as a gloss upon his celebrated definition of poetry as a “momentary stay against confusion.” In poems like these you might say he himself concocts the confusion—or at least the disequilibrium—that the poem ultimately rectifies. For just a moment, the poem’s melody shifts its key or strikes a discrepant note.
Both sorts of prosodic outing—the one that maintains and the one that rumples form—are united by a sense of jeopardy. He crystalized this notion in a letter written late in his career:
What are ideals of form for if we arent going to be made to fear for them? All our ingenuity is lavished on getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued.
The formal “danger” that Frost’s poems get into often is a seemingly minuscule matter of rhythm or meter; he is forever proceeding under the sanguine assumption that small matters of construction will tell. The civilized, implicit request his poems make is for a nicely calibrated reader.
On the whole, Frost has been fortunate in his readers, having attracted over the years many sane and sensitive critics. Theirs has been an unusual task. Typically, the poetry critic’s job is to present the poet in question as underappreciated and underread. In the case of Frost—the most beloved of all American poets—his defenders have worked to demonstrate that he has been embraced for all the wrong reasons. More than that of most poets, Frost criticism has progressed as a series of correctives.
In three substantial essays—“The Other Frost,” “To the Laodiceans,” and “Robert Frost’s ‘Home Burial”‘—Randall Jarrell, in many ways Frost’s ablest interpreter, set out to deliver Frost from his image as a “sensible, tender, humorous poet.” His analysis of “Home Burial” dissects Frost’s long harrowing poem almost line by line, with a ferocious psychological penetration; this must be the best essay on an American poem ever written by an American poet (just as the three essays, collectively, must be the finest tribute one American poet has paid another). And the other two essays—both written more than forty years ago—simply lay out the accepted Frost: Jarrell’s list of the major poems has become, by and large, canonical, and in his outlining of the dominant themes and preoccupations we have a quick but convincing portrait of the complex man we’ve learned to know as Frost. Likewise, the academician’s Frost, as represented in current scholarly journals, is recognizably a Jarrell derivative (a debt not always acknowledged—presumably because, with characteristic timidity, the academic writer is likely to shy from citing Jarrell’s freewheeling, footnoteless criticism).
Even so, it’s the nature of a corrective to overstate its arguments. Frost’s defenders have been at such pains to establish the depth and subtlety of his thought that we can lose sight of one of his staple virtues: his lucidity. From the start, Frost aimed at the widest possible audience and much of what he wrote is as clear as glass. “The Runaway,” “A Patch of Old Snow,” “The Most of It”—a professor in American Studies is unlikely to pull anything more out of these poems, or appreciate them more richly, than would a good high-school student. Similarly, in pursuing the dark “other Frost” Jarrell sometimes takes a more dire view than the poems justify. The lovely “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” (which Lionel Trilling considered possibly the “most perfect poem of our time”) is surely not the blistering condemnation that Jarrell imagines. The poem meditates on humankind’s innate attraction to the seashore—and to, by extension, all those spiritual thresholds toward which we peer so myopically. The poem concludes:
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
Jarrell observes that “it would be hard to find anything more unpleasant to say about people than that last stanza”—but isn’t Frost looking with wry affection at others and at himself? Isn’t he saying that, as seekers after the truth, we’re to be commended for our immoderate appetites, rather than damned for our modest achievements?
Perhaps some literary historian of the twenty-first century will adequately explain our native penchant for tracking American literary lineages back to some elemental. First Cause. It’s a pervasive habit. Think of Hemingway announcing that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Or think of how many poets have been rooted back to one or another other of those improbably fruitful parents, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. (This is a nationalism which, taken to its chauvinistic extreme, disallows any foreign parentage; the American poet descended from, say, Tennyson must be a bastard.) In Frost’s case, the temptation is strong to derive him purely from Emerson.
Although it supplies no introduction and only skeletal annotations, the Library of America edition may here act as a gentle corrective. While it includes Frost’s lecture on Emerson, which could hardly be more adulatory (Emerson is—along with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln—one of “my four greatest Americans”), the annotations repeatedly steer us to foreign shores. The bulk of the notes lead to Europe and the Middle East—to English history and literature (King Arthur, Shakespeare, Shelley, Arnold), to biblical landscapes and anecdotes (particularly the Old Testament), to classical mythology and literature (Calypso, Nausicaä, Horace, Lucretius). Few American poets have steeped themselves more thoroughly in Latin than Frost did. If the tales of New Englanders in North of Boston are homegrown affairs, they’re also, as he noted, “in a form suggested by the eclogues of Virgil.” (One can’t help thinking, too, that what they are, or could have been, are beautifully produced radio plays, had America offered Frost anything comparable to the facilities the BBC has traditionally offered English poets.)
The book’s annotations also address the issue of Frost’s modernity. Seeking to shield him from the charge of being an old-fashioned writer—even a “retrograde artist”—a number of his defenders have stressed, again in a spirit of corrective, his intimate connection to various modern trends, especially the attempt to inject a more natural speaking voice into conventional metrics. There’s a good deal of truth in the notion. Howard Moss was surely right in linking Frost’s diction to Bishop’s. He might equally have joined Frost to Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, Donald Hall, and to himself.
It’s plausible, then, to place Frost squarely in a—if not the—central branch of modern poetry. This is in many ways our standard take on Frost: he becomes, like Hardy, a cagey modernist. Yet this is a corrected view that occasionally distorts as much as it clarifies—one that ignores, for instance, the notable degree to which Frost adhered to outmoded locutions. He was, it’s worth recalling, a poet who some forty years after the appearance of The Waste Land could publish a couplet like “Tis a confusion it was ours to start / So in it have to take courageous part.” He never shook off his liking for “twould” and “twixt” and “tween”—rather, he seems pointedly to have clung to such constructions, with a fidelity approaching fervent loyalty.
What exactly was Frost being loyal to? To a particular vision of the lyric poem, it would seem—one epitomized by Francis Palgrave’s great nineteenth-century anthology, The Golden Treasury. When seeking to explain, many years afterward, what had inspired him in 1912, a year before A Boy’s Will was published, despite very limited means, to move himself and his large family to England for a couple of years, Frost reported that he “had come to the land of the Golden Treasury. That’s what I went for.” The anecdote has a quaintly whimsical ring—Frost was a magnificent self-mythologizer. But like so much mythology it speaks its coded truth. The book was for him a talisman and touchstone—a volume he studied while a student, taught while a teacher, and during a long lifetime pressed upon his friends. “I did read that literally to rags and tatters,” he once observed.
Palgrave served Frost as an exemplar, and Frost repaid that debt by composing verses that Palgrave’s contributors could immediately have apprehended and appreciated. One can imagine Thomas Campion or Edmund Waller or Thomas Gray, resurrected from the grave, shaking his head in dismay at most of Frost’s contemporaries. Marianne Moore was a wonderful poet, but Campion, Waller, Gray, et al., would have scrutinized her verse with befuddled disbelief. (Even W.H. Auden, though her near-contemporary and a ceaseless experimenter himself, reported that on first reading her poems, he “simply could not make head or tail of them.”) Frost, though, they would have taken to.
If Frost the modernist ought to be acknowledged, so should Frost the sustainer of an expiring idiom. Ours is a critical age that bestows its highest praise on the innovator, as indicated by the wealth of terms that, although rooted in censure, have come to carry positive associations: rebel, subversive, iconoclast, maverick, nonconformist, insurrectionist. All are characterizations that have some applicability to Frost. But what is the approbatory term that would mark the complementary side of his achievement—that would honor the artist who extends beyond its expected life a beloved tradition? In this regard Frost is kin to an artist like Puccini (think of Turandot’s appearing in the same decade as Berg’s Wozzeck) or to the Corot who went on producing calm, classical, marvelous canvases while Monet and Renoir and Pissarro were beginning to explode both the colors and the imagery of the traditional French landscape.
What is in fact so striking about Frost’s old-fashioned touches is how unstriking they seem. They feel oddly natural. For what Frost conveys in the aggregate is a sense of being thoroughly at ease in an essentially nineteenth-century armature. When reading the poems he produced in the Thirties—some of his finest work—I will occasionally find myself marveling at having just read past, untroubled, a “tis” or a “tween.” If other poets of Frost’s generation, and later generations, have chosen to work in conventional metrics, none has demonstrated quite the same blend of facility and fecundity. No one else in our century has been quite so at home in Palgrave’s ideal, or has transported its tones and cadences so successfully into our own time. You might call Frost America’s best nineteenth-century poet (and call Dickinson and Whitman, those stylistic oddballs, two of our best twentieth-century poets). In the long run, what’s a mere hundred years, one way or the other?
And from where we now stand, with a few scant years to run before twentieth-century poets, too, are a thing of the past, it seems apparent that Frost represents both a vibrant tradition (a modernist effort to discover new ways of hitching form to a changing speech idiom) and the end of a line (a voice in whom Longfellow and Whittier and Bryant are heard as living heirs). At this point, it’s impossible to imagine the emergence of another American whose work would ring so many echoes on our nineteenth-century poetic tradition. Hence, in any reading of Frost there’s an elegiac burden—even when he is summoning up a spring thaw, or a foal, or a sunrise.
Frost’s poetry strengthens over time. Whenever you go through the whole of it, you discover not only that the great poems have stayed great, but that since your last inspection one or two of the good ones have mysteriously elevated themselves. On my most recent go-round, the poem that over-whelmed me was one I’d hardly noticed before: “Iris by Night,” from A Further Range. It memorializes Frost’s friend Edward Thomas, whom Frost never saw again after departing from England in 1915. Thomas died at the battle of Arras, in 1917.
“Iris by Night” recalls an evening walk with Thomas when the moonlight played various tricks—momentarily enfolding the two of them in a numinous spectrum. (Probably, they were witnesses to that rare phenomenon which meteorologists call a moonbow.) The poem is too long to quote in full, but it’s worth digging up—indeed, would be worth digging up out of the side of a mountain, for this must be one of the most moving poems ever dedicated to friendship. The poem concludes on a mystical note, one of a fragile but infrangible union:
And then we were vouchsafed the miracle
That never yet to other two befell
And I alone of us have lived to tell.
A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went,
(To keep the pots of gold from being found)
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many- colored ends,
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round
From all division time or foe could bring
In a relation of elected friends.
Frost scholarship in recent years also has been taken up with another sort of corrective: the rescuing of Frost from his authorized biographer. The late Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume portrait was so saturated with bile that a mini-genre has since grown up devoted to exonerating Frost from the “monster myth.” Well-intentioned as such efforts are, they look a little extraneous beside “Iris by Night.” For a poem like this is manifestly the work of—there’s no denying the notion—a true friend and a great heart. I wish we could all have the good fortune to be friend such a monster.
August 8, 1996