‘Burnt with Frost’

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

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

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

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

Kendall (and his publisher, Yale University Press), taking advantage of the present lapse of copyright protection on poems published before the end of 1923, can therefore print, without having to pay permission fees, poems from Frost’s first four books. From the forty years of Frost’s verse from 1923 through 1962, however, Kendall includes merely ten poems. There is nothing wrong in choosing poems that are out of copyright, but it seems disingenuous not to acknowledge, in a book grandly entitled The Art of…

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