Mountain Interval marked Frost’s turn to another kind of poem, a brief meditation sparked by an object, person or event. Like the monologues and dialogues, these short pieces have a dramatic quality. “Birches,” discussed above, is an example, as is “The Road Not Taken,” in which a fork in a woodland path transcends the specific. The distinction of this volume, the Boston Transcript said, “is that Mr. Frost takes the lyricism of A Boy’s Will and plays a deeper music and gives a more intricate variety of experience.”
Several new qualities emerged in Frost’s work with the appearance of New Hampshire, particularly a new self-consciousness and willingness to speak of himself and his art. The volume, for which Frost won his first Pulitzer Prize, “pretends to be nothing but a long poem with notes and grace notes,” as Louis Untermeyer described it. The title poem, approximately fourteen pages long, is a “rambling tribute” to Frost’s favorite state and “is starred and dotted with scientific numerals in the manner of the most profound treatise.” Thus, a footnote at the end of a line of poetry will refer the reader to another poem seemingly inserted to merely reinforce the text of “New Hampshire.” Some of these poems are in the form of epigrams, which appear for the first time in Frost’s work. “Fire and Ice,” for example, one of the better known epigrams, speculates on the means by which the world will end. Frost’s most famous and, according to J. McBride Dabbs, most perfect lyric, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is also included in this collection; conveying “the insistent whisper of death at the heart of life,” the poem portrays a speaker who stops his sleigh in the midst of a snowy woods only to be called from the inviting gloom by the recollection of practical duties. Frost himself said of this poem that it is the kind he’d like to print on one page followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
West-Running Brook, Frost’s fifth book of poems, is divided into six sections, one of which is taken up entirely by the title poem. This poem refers to a brook which perversely flows west instead of east to the Atlantic like all other brooks. A comparison is set up between the brook and the poem’s speaker who trusts himself to go by “contraries”; further rebellious elements exemplified by the brook give expression to an eccentric individualism, Frost’s stoic theme of resistance and self-realization. Reviewing the collection in the New York Herald Tribune, Babette Deutsch wrote: “The courage that is bred by a dark sense of Fate, the tenderness that broods over mankind in all its blindness and absurdity, the vision that comes to rest as fully on kitchen smoke and lapsing snow as on mountains and stars—these are his, and in his seemingly casual poetry, he quietly makes them ours.”
A Further Range, which earned Frost another Pulitzer Prize and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, contains two groups of poems subtitled “Taken Doubly” and “Taken Singly.” In the first, and more interesting, of these groups, the poems are somewhat didactic, though there are humorous and satiric pieces as well. Included here is “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” which opens with the story of two itinerant lumbermen who offer to cut the speaker’s wood for pay; the poem then develops into a sermon on the relationship between work and play, vocation and avocation, preaching the necessity to unite them. Of the entire volume, William Rose Benet wrote, “It is better worth reading than nine-tenths of the books that will come your way this year. In a time when all kinds of insanity are assailing the nations it is good to listen to this quiet humor, even about a hen, a hornet, or Square Matthew.... And if anybody should ask me why I still believe in my land, I have only to put this book in his hand and answer, ‘Well-here is a man of my country.’” Most critics acknowledge that Frost’s poetry in the forties and fifties grew more and more abstract, cryptic, and even sententious, so it is generally on the basis of his earlier work that he is judged. His politics and religious faith, hitherto informed by skepticism and local color, became more and more the guiding principles of his work. He had been, as Randall Jarrellpoints out, “a very odd and very radical radical when young” yet became “sometimes callously and unimaginatively conservative” in his old age. He had become a public figure, and in the years before his death, much of his poetry was written from this stance.
Reviewing A Witness Tree in Books, Wilbert Snow noted a few poems “which have a right to stand with the best things he has written”: “Come In,” “The Silken Tent,” and “Carpe Diem” especially. Yet Snow went on: “Some of the poems here are little more than rhymed fancies; others lack the bullet-like unity of structure to be found in North of Boston.” On the other hand, Stephen Vincent Benet felt that Frost had “never written any better poems than some of those in this book.” Similarly, critics were let down by In the Clearing. One wrote, “Although this reviewer considers Robert Frost to be the foremost contemporary U.S. poet, he regretfully must state that most of the poems in this new volume are disappointing.... [They] often are closer to jingles than to the memorable poetry we associate with his name.” Another maintained that “the bulk of the book consists of poems of ‘philosophic talk.’ Whether you like them or not depends mostly on whether you share the ‘philosophy.’”
Indeed, many readers do share Frost’s philosophy, and still others who do not nevertheless continue to find delight and significance in his large body of poetry. In October, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. “In honoring Robert Frost,” the President said, “we therefore can pay honor to the deepest source of our national strength. That strength takes many forms and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant.... Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.” The poet would probably have been pleased by such recognition, for he had said once, in an interview with Harvey Breit: “One thing I care about, and wish young people could care about, is taking poetry as the first form of understanding. If poetry isn’t understanding all, the whole world, then it isn’t worth anything.”
Frost’s poetry is revered to this day. When a previously unknown poem by Frost titled “War Thoughts at Home,” was discovered and dated to 1918, it was subsequently published in the fall, 2006, edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Frost’sComplete Works are currently being published by Harvard University Press.
“Faith” is fine invention (202)
BY EMILY DICKINSON
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)