Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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.
POETRobert Frost 1874–1963
POET’S REGIONU.S., New England
SUBJECTSTime & Brevity, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Living, Midlife, Fall
POETIC TERMSRhymed Stanza
Robert Frost holds a unique and almost isolated position in American letters. “Though his career fully spans the modern period and though it is impossible to speak of him as anything other than a modern poet,” writes James M. Cox, “it is difficult to place him in the main tradition of modern poetry.” In a sense, Frost stands at the crossroads of 19th-century American poetry and modernism, for in his verse may be found the culmination of many 19th-century tendencies and traditions as well as parallels to the works of his 20th-century contemporaries. Taking his symbols from the public domain, Frost developed, as many critics note, an original, modern idiom and a sense of directness and economy that reflect the imagism of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell. On the other hand, as Leonard Unger and William Van O’Connor point out in Poems for Study, “Frost’s poetry, unlike that of such contemporaries as Eliot, Stevens, and the later Yeats, shows no marked departure from the poetic practices of the nineteenth century.” Although he avoids traditional verse forms and only uses rhyme erratically, Frost is not an innovator and his technique is never experimental.
Frost’s theory of poetic composition ties him to both centuries. Like the 19th-century Romantics, he maintained that a poem is “never a put-up job.... It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” Yet, “working out his own version of the ‘impersonal’ view of art,” as Hyatt H. Waggoner observed, Frost also upheld T. S. Eliot‘s idea that the man who suffers and the artist who creates are totally separate. In a 1932 letter to Sydney Cox, Frost explained his conception of poetry: “The objective idea is all I ever cared about. Most of my ideas occur in verse.... To be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come on him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in pain of his life had faith he had made graceful.”
To accomplish such objectivity and grace, Frost took up 19th-century tools and made them new. Lawrance Thompson has explained that, according to Frost, “the self-imposed restrictions of meter in form and of coherence in content” work to a poet’s advantage; they liberate him from the experimentalist’s burden—the perpetual search for new forms and alternative structures. Thus Frost, as he himself put it in “The Constant Symbol,” wrote his verse regular; he never completely abandoned conventional metrical forms for free verse, as so many of his contemporaries were doing. At the same time, his adherence to meter, line length, and rhyme scheme was not an arbitrary choice. He maintained that “the freshness of a poem belongs absolutely to its not having been thought out and then set to verse as the verse in turn might be set to music.” He believed, rather, that the poem’s particular mood dictated or determined the poet’s “first commitment to metre and length of line.”
Critics frequently point out that Frost complicated his problem and enriched his style by setting traditional meters against the natural rhythms of speech. Drawing his language primarily from the vernacular, he avoided artificial poetic diction by employing the accent of a soft-spoken New Englander. In The Function of Criticism,Yvor Winters faulted Frost for his “endeavor to make his style approximate as closely as possible the style of conversation.” But what Frost achieved in his poetry was much more complex than a mere imitation of the New England farmer idiom. He wanted to restore to literature the “sentence sounds that underlie the words,” the “vocal gesture” that enhances meaning. That is, he felt the poet’s ear must be sensitive to the voice in order to capture with the written word the significance of sound in the spoken word. “The Death of the Hired Man,” for instance, consists almost entirely of dialogue between Mary and Warren, her farmer-husband, but critics have observed that in this poem Frost takes the prosaic patterns of their speech and makes them lyrical. To Ezra Pound “The Death of the Hired Man” represented Frost at his best—when he “dared to write ... in the natural speech of New England; in natural spoken speech, which is very different from the ‘natural’ speech of the newspapers, and of many professors.”
Frost’s use of New England dialect is only one aspect of his often discussed regionalism. Within New England, his particular focus was on New Hampshire, which he called “one of the two best states in the Union,” the other being Vermont. In an essay entitled “Robert Frost and New England: A Revaluation,” W. G. O’Donnell noted how from the start, in A Boy’s Will, “Frost had already decided to give his writing a local habitation and a New England name, to root his art in the soil that he had worked with his own hands.” Reviewing North of Boston in the New Republic, Amy Lowell wrote, “Not only is his work New England in subject, it is so in technique.... Mr. Frost has reproduced both people and scenery with a vividness which is extraordinary.” Many other critics have lauded Frost’s ability to realistically evoke the New England landscape; they point out that one can visualize an orchard in “After Apple-Picking” or imagine spring in a farmyard in “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” In this “ability to portray the local truth in nature,” O’Donnell claims, Frost has no peer. The same ability prompted Pound to declare, “I know more of farm life than I did before I had read his poems. That means I know more of ‘Life.’”
Frost’s regionalism, critics remark, is in his realism, not in politics; he creates no picture of regional unity or sense of community. In The Continuity of American Poetry, Roy Harvey Pearce describes Frost’s protagonists as individuals who are constantly forced to confront their individualism as such and to reject the modern world in order to retain their identity. Frost’s use of nature is not only similar but closely tied to this regionalism. He stays as clear of religion and mysticism as he does of politics. What he finds in nature is sensuous pleasure; he is also sensitive to the earth’s fertility and to man’s relationship to the soil. To critic M. L. Rosenthal, Frost’s pastoral quality, his “lyrical and realistic repossession of the rural and ‘natural,’” is the staple of his reputation.
Yet, just as Frost is aware of the distances between one man and another, so he is also always aware of the distinction, the ultimate separateness, of nature and man. Marion Montgomery has explained, “His attitude toward nature is one of armed and amicable truce and mutual respect interspersed with crossings of the boundaries” between individual man and natural forces. Below the surface of Frost’s poems are dreadful implications, what Rosenthal calls his “shocked sense of the helpless cruelty of things.” This natural cruelty is at work in “Design” and in “Once by the Pacific.” The ominous tone of these two poems prompted Rosenthal’s further comment: “At his most powerful Frost is as staggered by ‘the horror’ as Eliot and approaches the hysterical edge of sensibility in a comparable way.... His is still the modern mind in search of its own meaning.”
The austere and tragic view of life that emerges in so many of Frost’s poems is modulated by his metaphysical use of detail. As Frost portrays him, man might be alone in an ultimately indifferent universe, but he may nevertheless look to the natural world for metaphors of his own condition. Thus, in his search for meaning in the modern world, Frost focuses on those moments when the seen and the unseen, the tangible and the spiritual intersect. John T. Napier calls this Frost’s ability “to find the ordinary a matrix for the extraordinary.” In this respect, he is often compared withEmily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in whose poetry, too, a simple fact, object, person, or event will be transfigured and take on greater mystery or significance. The poem “Birches” is an example: it contains the image of slender trees bent to the ground temporarily by a boy’s swinging on them or permanently by an ice-storm. But as the poem unfolds, it becomes clear that the speaker is concerned not only with child’s play and natural phenomena, but also with the point at which physical and spiritual reality merge.
Such symbolic import of mundane facts informs many of Frost’s poems, and in “Education by Poetry” he explained: “Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.... Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.”
Frost’s own poetical education began in San Francisco where he was born in 1874, but he found his place of safety in New England when his family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1884 following his father’s death. The move was actually a return, for Frost’s ancestors were originally New Englanders. The region must have been particularly conducive to the writing of poetry because within the next five years Frost had made up his mind to be a poet. In fact, he graduated from Lawrence High School, in 1892, as class poet (he also shared the honor of co-valedictorian with his wife-to-be Elinor White); and two years later, the New York Independent accepted his poem entitled “My Butterfly,” launching his status as a professional poet with a check for $15.00.
To celebrate his first publication, Frost had a book of six poems privately printed; two copies of Twilight were made—one for himself and one for his fiancee. Over the next eight years, however, he succeeded in having only thirteen more poems published. During this time, Frost sporadically attended Dartmouth and Harvard and earned a living teaching school and, later, working a farm in Derry, New Hampshire. But in 1912, discouraged by American magazines’ constant rejection of his work, he took his family to England, where he could “write and be poor without further scandal in the family.” In England, Frost found the professional esteem denied him in his native country. Continuing to write about New England, he had two books published, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, which established his reputation so that his return to the United States in 1915 was as a celebrated literary figure. Holt put out an American edition of North of Boston, and periodicals that had once scorned his work now sought it.
Since 1915 Frost’s position in American letters has been firmly rooted; in the years before his death he came to be considered the unofficial poet laureate of the United States. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor which said, “His poems have helped to guide American thought and humor and wisdom, setting forth to our minds a reliable representation of ourselves and of all men.” In 1955, the State of Vermont named a mountain after him in Ripton, the town of his legal residence; and at the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, Frost was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem. Frost wrote a poem called “Dedication” for the occasion, but could not read it given the day’s harsh sunlight. He instead recited “The Gift Outright,” which Kennedy had originally asked him to read, with a revised, more forward-looking, last line.
Though Frost allied himself with no literary school or movement, the imagists helped at the start to promote his American reputation. Poetry: A Magazine of Versepublished his work before others began to clamor for it. It also published a review by Ezra Pound of the British edition of A Boy’s Will, which Pound said “has the tang of the New Hampshire woods, and it has just this utter sincerity. It is not post-Miltonic or post-Swinburnian or post Kiplonian. This man has the good sense to speak naturally and to paint the thing, the thing as he sees it.” Amy Lowell reviewed North of Boston in the New Republic, and she, too, sang Frost’s praises: “He writes in classic metres in a way to set the teeth of all the poets of the older schools on edge; and he writes in classic metres, and uses inversions and cliches whenever he pleases, those devices so abhorred by the newest generation. He goes his own way, regardless of anyone else’s rules, and the result is a book of unusual power and sincerity.” In these first two volumes, Frost introduced not only his affection for New England themes and his unique blend of traditional meters and colloquialism, but also his use of dramatic monologues and dialogues. “Mending Wall,” the leading poem in North of Boston,describes the friendly argument between the speaker and his neighbor as they walk along their common wall replacing fallen stones; their differing attitudes toward “boundaries” offer symbolic significance typical of the poems in these early collections.