What is “the art” of Robert Frost? The long-lived Frost (1874–1963) had several arts, sometimes incompatible ones. In this he resembles many other poets: it is hard to connect the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads with the Wordsworth of the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, or—to take an example nearer to hand—the Lowell of Life Studies (1959) with the Lowell of History (1973). The song-like Robert Frost descends from Longfellow, and is a master of exquisite lyrics. The narrative Frost descends from Browning, and is a master of New England speech. Although both Frosts are admirable, it is possible to argue—as Tim Kendall of the University of Exeter does in his commentary on a selection of Frost’s poems—that the New England conversational Frost is the more original of the two.
Frost prided himself on having captured in poetry the “sentence sounds” of ordinary speech. He was right in arguing that even when one is unable to make out the words of a conversation behind a door, one can tell a great deal about the intensities of overheard passions as they declare themselves in timbre, pitch, volume, and tone. Frost had the genius to see that the dramatic monologue of Browning—always spoken by a single person in the (silent) presence of one or more other persons—could be wonderfully vivified when transformed into dialogue. In the agonizing “Home Burial,” for instance, Frost reproduces a cascade of tones—antagonistic, angry, defensive, pleading, piteous, raging, grief-stricken, hysterical, threatening. In departing from Browning’s single-voiced poems, Frost also departed—in his essentially anonymous regional people—from Browning’s more “artificial” historical or fictional characters (the Renaissance bishop selecting his tomb, Shakespeare’s Caliban). The dramatic Frost poems (mostly in blank verse) tend to arise from a single arresting incident: a child’s death, a boy’s mutilation by a buzz saw, a hired man’s return to a farm to die.
Frost’s first volume, A Boy’s Will (1913)—with a title taken from Longfellow—consisted only of lyrics, some very beautiful (especially “Mowing” and “October”). The dramatic poems surge into appearance only in his second volume, the well-named North of Boston (1914). Both collections, first published in London (where Frost had gone to live in 1912), were published in the United States in 1915, the year of his return from England. These two volumes were followed by Mountain Interval (1916) and New Hampshire (1923).
Kendall (and his publisher, Yale University Press), taking advantage of the present lapse of copyright protection on poems published before the end of 1923, can therefore print, without having to pay permission fees, poems from Frost’s first four books. From the forty years of Frost’s verse from 1923 through 1962, however, Kendall includes merely ten poems. There is nothing wrong in choosing poems that are out of copyright, but it seems disingenuous not to acknowledge, in a book grandly entitled The Art of Robert Frost, the commercial reason responsible, at least in part, for the extreme disproportion between early and later work. The publisher’s press release also fudges the commercial facts, declaring that the poems come “from across Frost’s writing career, beginning in the 1890s and ending with ‘Directive’ from the 1940s.” Yes, but 90 percent of them come from before 1923. As Robert Lowell put it, “Why not say what happened?” Why not openly disclose the influence of the 1923 cutoff on Kendall’s table of contents?
It is true, as Kendall says, that “after New Hampshire, Frost continued to write great poems but (by the high standards of earlier work) not great books.” Yet in choosing to print the whole of one entire volume, North of Boston, while regretting “not having found space for” many notable poems (among them, for instance, “October,” “The Hill Wife,” “Once by the Pacific,” and “Provide, Provide”), Kendall leaves his readers wondering: Was it worth sacrificing these famous lyrics in order to include “A Hundred Collars,” “Blueberries,” and “The Generations of Men” (three relatively unsuccessful dialogue-poems from North of Boston)? And if we believe that the earlier Frost was the better Frost, why not place on the cover the face of the gifted young man of the first four books rather than the face of the ancient Frost, twinkling and grinning?
Let me give two examples of later poems that might profitably have been included as shedding light on famous early ones, but that have been regrettably sacrificed to economic expediency. The early “After Apple-Picking” had transmitted the anxiety of the worker who is afraid to let any apple drop unharvested, lest it go to waste:
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
Isn’t it worth recording that Frost later repented, at least momentarily, of the human interruption, by harvest, of the apple’s normal life cycle? In a thrilling sonnet of 1936, he praises a farmer who, by letting his apple tree go entirely “unharvested,” letting it stand among its windfalls, returns the world to its Edenic state:
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.
May something go always unharvested!
The poems make a natural diptych. And although Kendall includes Mountain Interval’s grim tale of the murder of the sole remaining Indian in Acton (“The Vanishing Red”), he doesn’t show Frost’s vision (in the 1947 “A Cliff Dwelling”) of one of the last prehistoric Native Americans. The poet imagines that the tribes of the West found themselves, from time immemorial (and not merely from the time of the modern settlers), starving, besieged, and beset with fears. “Halfway up the limestone wall” of a canyon the poet sees a “spot of black”:
That spot of black is not a stain
Or shadow, but a cavern hole,
Where someone used to climb and crawl
To rest from his besetting fears.
I see the callus on his sole
The disappearing last of him
And of his race starvation slim,
Oh, years ago—ten thousand years.
The sudden close focus on “the callus on his sole” is genuine Frost, as he narrows his gaze to glimpse the bare flash of foot. Although Kendall does, very often, refer to one poem while commenting on another, he is clearly hampered by the absence among his texts of late poems still in copyright (except for his terminal ten).
When Frost (a Californian transplanted to New England as an eleven-year-old) was growing up, Browning was in the air. From the 1880s on Browning clubs gathered to interpret the works of the difficult and prolific English poet. Eliot’s “Prufrock” grows out of Browning, Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C” derives from Browning’s Sordello, and North of Boston’s sense of character comes directly from Browning. In Frost’s dialogues, New Hampshire people talk in seemingly plain, but often knotty, dialogue, about some undelayable or final predicament. Frost played speech against meter, and enjoyed the way he turned the stately blank verse of Milton and Wordsworth into preposterous lines like the final sentence uttered by the aged pauper “witch” of Grafton:
All is, if I’d a-known when I was young
And full of it, that this would be the end,
It doesn’t seem as if I’d had the courage
To make so free and kick up in folks’ faces.
I might have, but it doesn’t seem as if.
Behind all of Frost’s country dialogues is the glee he felt in turning the lofty into the low, in reforming blank-verse diction far beyond what Wordsworth had done in bringing it down to the language of “a man speaking to men.” No matter how savage or how tragic the matter of the verse, the unloosed energy in the play of speech and counterspeech always exhilarated Frost. He liked resorting to rapidly exchanged single short utterances, a form borrowed from classical Greek drama:
‘Shout, she may hear you,’
‘Shouting is no good.’
‘Keep speaking then.’
‘Hello. Hello. Hello.
You don’t suppose—She wouldn’t go outdoors?’
‘I’m half afraid that’s just what she might do.’
‘And leave the children?’
There are pages and pages of this in “Snow,” an unsuccessfully prolonged narrative dialogue from Mountain Interval.
Frost does better with a more restricted compass, a more moving theme, a more quick-eyed narrator, and a fast sense of back-and-forth, as in the opening of “Home Burial.” There, without a wasted word, the young parents of the dead child edge toward and away from each other, as the action passes from the bewildered husband to the accusatory wife and back again:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down…
She took a doubtful step and then undid it….
Advancing toward her….
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
It is when the characters begin to speak that the drama mounts:
‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried….
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’
‘Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.’
And Frost ends the poem violently, as the wife attempts to leave the house and the husband cries out, “‘I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—’”
Dialogues of this sort, as Frost himself often said, were “a little nearer one act plays than eclogues.” But Frost was not at heart a dramatist; he was interested in people one by one, or at most two-by-two, rather than as members of a larger social group enmeshed in the multiple interrelations of drama. And unlike the dialogues or monologues of Beckett, Frost’s conversations carve out lengthy room for themselves, and dare us to be impatient as we slowly deduce, from hints and indirections, the tangle of sorrow or anger in the household we are visiting. It may be a household where a common-law wife has left her husband (“The Housekeeper”), or where the victim of an industrial accident awaits the insurance adjuster who is going to decide what his mangled “legs and feet” are worth. Gothic madness is often around the corner, as, to a superstitious speaker, the bones of a murdered man mount the house stairs “like a pile of dishes,” or descend from the attic “brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers.” And everywhere there is heard the Frostian rhythm, in which iambs interspersed with anapests and spondees manage strings of syllables mounting to barely bridled hysteria or subsiding into Yankee irony.
In his sympathetic commentaries on Frost’s narratives, Kendall ambitiously and economically sketches out the plot of each one, deftly mentions related poems, quotes Frost’s lectures and notebooks, identifies allusions and sources, glances at critical interpretations, and notes formal strategies. (The formal observations tend to be repetitive, since Kendall reiterates, from commentary to commentary, remarks on Frost’s monosyllables, feminine endings, trochaic interruptions, and use of eleven-syllable classical lines; he does not devote much time to larger structural shapes.) But is there sufficient attention paid here to the Frostian imagination? The commentaries rather often treat the population of these narratives as “real people.” Here is the conclusion, for instance, of Kendall’s commentary on “The Fear”:
Joel understands [his partner] only too well, and whether through exasperation or embarrassment, he seems to have vanished at precisely the moment when she emphasizes how “‘very, very lonely’” the place is. Dropping the lantern, she is left defenseless and alone, in the dark, with nothing for company but her fear.
In such a closing remark, the “real-life situation” has trumped the imagination that conceived it.
Kendall, I’d say, prefers the “people poems” to the lyrics or the meditative poems, because the “people poems” enact moral situations embodying “real-life” problems. He is as willing as any of us to make the distinction, when necessary, between the poet and the speaker of a poem, but he rarely swerves from a frankly realistic tendency when he talks about Frost’s characters. In “The Housekeeper,” for instance, the narrator has revealed that Estelle, unwilling to continue in her role as common-law wife to John, has gone off to marry another man, leaving John in his house with Estelle’s mother, who has nowhere to go. Kendall comments on the people of the household:
The old woman is an unreliable and biased narrator, quite capable of hiding the truth to protect her daughter: she claims not to know where Estelle has gone, but later admits to knowing whom she has married…. And the case she makes against John is too flimsy to justify Estelle’s betrayal…. John is a bad farmer…“‘fond of nice things.’”…He is gentle with his hens, taking a childish pride in showing them. But these stories of John’s kindness and helpless impracticality do nothing to excuse Estelle’s abandonment.
To my mind, there is something too flat and unquestioning here, but I do not myself know how to understand and explain the imagination creating such “people poems.” My dissatisfaction with Kendall’s rehearsal of plot and character stems from an obscure sense that this workmanlike commentary avoids an investigation of the peculiar poetic imagination that decided to make up such people from nothing or from a local tale (this problem concerning the Frostian imagination is not solved by references to Browning and Hardy). Kendall is the author of a good book on Sylvia Plath, and has every academic qualification to write on Frost. And yet the sheer imaginative élan of Frost’s writing—“The fine delight that fathers thought,/The strong spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame” (Hopkins)—is rarely evoked on Kendall’s pages.
Kendall’s emphasis often falls on poetry’s reliance on symbol, a practice Frost—with his penchant for Latinity—sometimes called “ulteriority.” Kendall translates this perfectly ordinary poetic practice into outright deception: “[Frost’s] strategy required that some would not understand: to have an ulterior motive is to conceal, mislead, and deceive. Where there is no deception, there is no ulteriority.” It’s true that in the poem “Directive” Frost alludes to Jesus’ assertion of the usefulness of parables in the presence of unbelievers: “That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them” (Mark 4:12). Jesus’ assertion does imply a deliberate deflection—before a hostile audience—of religious belief into moral fable. But a poet is not a creator of moral allegory deceiving all but initiates. Nor is the lyric poem a piece of rhetoric primarily aimed at a reader. Frost’s obiter dicta are many, and not always consistent, but one true one is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” The writer writes symbolically of his own tears; the reader may shed tears in response. But it is fatal for the writer to want to make the reader shed tears.
What drew Frost to conceive his vignettes of the darker side of life? Kendall commendably resists allegorizing them merely as writing about writing; he prefers to see them as moral instructions, a view that ultimately requires him to declare his own sense of what Frost (for all his “ulteriority” and use of unreliable narrators) approves or disapproves of. It is in his moral judgment that Kendall can seem excessive. In “The Woodpile,” for instance, the speaker, wandering far from home, comes upon a long-abandoned woodpile, and wonders why such a palpable investment of energy should have been abandoned. Kendall hazards that the speaker’s “failure of sympathy [with the creator of the woodpile] lapses into disapproval.” But do the speaker’s reflective closing lines express “disapproval”?
I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his axe,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
We might see the abandoner of the woodpile as one turning to fresh tasks and relegating, even forgetting, an earlier enterprise, when he is overtaken by the next onrush of the creative impulse. Yet the stored energy of the woodpile is not lost; while the ordinary language of action or information passes transitively into the world and is lost, the language of art remains long available as an energy warming a cheerless world. Frost’s speaker does not deny the eventual “decay” of all things, but the “sheer morning gladness at the brim” (“The Tuft of Flowers”) of those who live “in turning to fresh tasks” remains still in the residual warmth of the woodpile.
Here, as elsewhere, Kendall’s interpretation seems to me forced. He thinks that Frost’s speaker “disapproves” of the person who left the woodpile behind, and that Frost, regarding his speaker with irony, knows better. The poet, Kendall declares, possesses a superior knowledge that we, his readers, share; and Kendall concludes, of the tone of the speaker:
This tone of accusation is strange…. [The speaker] interprets the woodpile solely according to his own mental predilections. [The last line’s assonance] conveys the futility which the woodpile is taken to represent.
But “it may be worth acknowledging,” Kendall continues, rather pretentiously drawing a moral, “that the woodpile is not wasted among the wastes: the result of someone’s pains, it exemplifies a lingering (if meager) human warmth amid the natural world’s desolate expanses.” Yes—and Frost’s speaker has just said exactly that. There is no knowledge that we as readers possess that has not been conveyed to us by the speaker.
It is impossible to pursue such questions throughout Kendall’s commentary on Frost’s longer poems; future critics will sift his conclusions. But Kendall does seem to me fallible in his treatment of many of Frost’s short lyrics. A few sample instances: it won’t do to describe Frost’s seductive line “of easy wind and downy flake” (in “Stopping by Woods”) as “glorious mood music.” In Kendall’s overreading of “A Hillside Thaw,” Frost’s triumphant spring frog-music (“The peeper’s silver croak”) “conveys mortality in its pun on ‘croak.’” Peculiar scansions appear here and there, as in Kendall’s comment on a passage in which Frost contrasts his own wish to wander against the rootedness of trees unable to go away. At the close, the trees are still rustling in place, but the poet vows to decamp: he utters (I mark his stresses) a three-beat line followed by a two-beat one:
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.
Kendall makes heavy weather of it:
The poem dwindles toward its vanishing point, its short lines of trimeter contracting first into dimeter (“I shall have less to say” is mimetic of its own prediction) and finally challenging the reader to find even two stresses in ‘But I shall be gone.”
I can’t understand how one could make a contextually plausible dimeter—with two stresses to a line—out of “I shall have less to say.” “I shall have less to say” loses the contrast with the trees, and there is surely no difficulty in locating two stresses in “But I shall be gone.”
There are more disturbing moments in the commentary, ones of strange accusations against Frost. Kendall asks, concerning the heartbreaking poem “‘Out, Out—’” in which a boy bleeds to death from the cut of a buzz saw, “On…what supporting evidence might poet or poem be absolved from a Neronic pleasure in the suffering of others?” He offers no such absolution: “‘“Out, Out—”’ is a brutal poem because it scorns the ameliorative effects of art and human sympathy.” Other readers, among them Seamus Heaney (as Kendall candidly admits), have found the speaker’s words appropriately grim in conveying country reality; as Heaney says, “[Let no one] mistake the wintry report of what happened at the end for the poet’s own callousness.” Kendall would think it sentimental to find Frost anything but brutal here.
Kendall appears to dislike lyrics in which, to his mind, Frost “is making no attempt to capture the rhythms of speech.” “The Road Not Taken” comes in for typical reproach: “Particular to the point of stuffiness, the language of ‘The Road Not Taken’ has many of the qualities of fine writing which Frost affected to loathe.” But is the stanza in which (according to Kendall) the speaker “panders to his own sense of melancholia” an exercise in “fine writing”?
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
“The anticipation of remembrance,” says Kendall, “has become high-flown and ostentatiously performative.” Has it seemed so to other readers?
I admire and enjoy the genre of commentary: to compare one’s own sense of a poem with someone else’s is necessarily thought-provoking. For a reader who does not know Frost’s poems well, or who has a naive idea of Frost as a poet, Kendall will certainly be helpful; for a reader who does have a detailed idea of the poem under scrutiny, Kendall—with his excellent assemblage of contexts—will serve as a sounding board and challenge. But I do wish he liked Frost’s unforgettable lyrics better, and had included many more of them. “October,” a pre-1923 poem, exquisite in sound, interwoven rhyme, and a lingering cadence is missing here. I quote it lest it be lost:
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
The leaves “burnt with frost” render the final fire and ice of the Frostian universe, tragic in spite of those Dionysian grapes.