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Robert Frost

21 Feb 2017Personal Essays

The American poet Robert Frost is, to a great extent, a controversial writer, although he has been ranked among the classics of literature. Frost’s biographical data are important in the analysis of his work, since he is generally considered as one of the most representative poets of New England due to the local color that he infused into his poetry. He was born in San Francisco and, after he got married, he lived for ten years on the farm his grandfather had given to him in Derry, New Hampshire.

Since the income coming from the farm was too low for his numerous family, Frost took up teaching, first in Derry and then in Plymouth. During the ten years the poet spent at the farm in Derry he wrote poetry and endeavored to publish it in various journals and periodicals in New Hampshire, but almost all the editors refused his work. Conscious of his artistic talent and dissatisfied with the lack of appreciation his work met with every time, Frost moved to Great Britain in 1912 where he hoped to promote his work. He soon became acquainted with the other great American poets that lived in England, such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, as well as with the British modernists, such as W. B. Yeats or Lascelles Abercrombie. Pound and the other poets wrote positive reviews of his work, and Frost soon became acknowledged as one of the classics of poetry. After having published his first two volumes of poetry A Boy’s Will and North of Boston in England, Frost returned to America and found out with surprise that his second book had become famous in his native country too.

The obstacles Frost met with at the beginning of his artistic career continued even after the official recognition of his work, in spite of the many awards he received. His particular style in writing received many praises but also a lot of criticism. Among the things that mostly distinguish Frost’s poetry from that of other poets are his naturalism and his preoccupation with poetical form. Frost is a naturalist both because he is an avid portrayer of nature and scenery and because he instilled as much local color as possible from the provinces of New England, being concerned especially with the degeneration he sensed in the lives of the farmers and country people in America.

As Amy Lowell noted, Frost is an ironic and almost sarcastic naturalist, who poignantly depicts the reality of the modern New England province, rendering its decay and ugliness: “[…] and the modern New England town, with narrow frame houses, visited by drummers alone, is painted in all its ugliness. For Mr. Frost's is not the kindly New England of Whittier, nor the humorous and sensible one of Lowell; it is a latter-day New England, where a civilization is decaying to give place to another and very different one. “(Greenberg, 50) Nevertheless, in spite of the chaos and decay it sometimes depicts, Frost’s poetry is extremely ordered and poised in terms of form and expression, his rhyming and his choice of words often achieving perfection. Also, the technique Frost uses in almost all his poems is what sets his work apart from the other contemporary writers: he uses the data and the images gathered from the physical world in his poem in such a way that nature gains a philosophical significance:

“There is the poet for whom external nature has a philosophically serious significance, either deliberately worked out or revealed by its implicit presence in a substantial body of work. Such poets may be capable of compelling powerful responses in the receptive reader, responses with an ethical or a metaphysical dimension.”(Nitchie, 5)

It was for these main characteristic of his work that Frost met with critical resistance many times. Thus, he was considered by his contemporary “out of touch” with his time, because his poetry did not aim at modernist innovations, and was too conservatory in both form and subject:

“Mr. Frost, for instance, is singularly out of touch with his own time […]He does not understand our time and will make no effort to understand it. When he essays to speak of it, as in the long poem "New Hampshire" (one of the poorest in the book and a sort of pudding of irrelevancies), he shows a surprising lack of comprehension. There, to the challenge of contemporary ideas, he replies with know-nothing arrogance, ‘Me for the hills where I don't have to choose.’ In fact, Mr. Frost's work is weakest in ideas. His style is gnomic; it sounds impressively thoughtful and many sentences have the rounded conclusiveness of proverbs. But his thought, disengaged from the style, is often discovered to be no thought at all, or a banality. ”(Greenberg, 61)

Too much traditionalism, banality and lack of originality are among the flaws most commonly attributed to Frost by his contemporaries. Also, Isidor Schneider criticized the lack of depth of Frost’s psychological analysis and his limited insight:

“Related to this lack of a developed and original philosophy is another lack. Mr. Frost's narrative poems are frequently poised upon a psychological situation. But Mr. Frost as a psychologist does not get very far. He can describe sensations perfectly; in fact, such descriptions are among his finest achievements. But he does not reach beyond the sensation; and in a psychological narrative he does not reach beyond the fact.”(Greenberg, 61)

However, some of the most criticized elements of Frost’s poetical style are intentional. For example, his lack of originality and his stubborn traditionalism are part of his own design and artistic beliefs, as Frost himself noticed:

“[…]they ask me why I write poetry. I write poetry because it's been written before. I'm not original enough to originate a whole new realm of action.”(Barron, 105) Frost believed that triviality and simplicity are the main poetical modes of delivering a ‘serious’, philosophical message, and that the essence of poetry is to say one thing and to mean another: “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. People say, ‘Why don't you say what you mean?’ We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets.”(Greenberg, 89)

Thus, Frost aims at universality and a true depiction of real life through the use of very particular and banal provincial imagery. He describes natural landscapes and bits of country life that are very particular of New England, but manages nevertheless to get his meaning through and to offer an understanding of life in general, as David Morton noted in his review of New Hampshire: “Once I was present at a spirited controversy between two excellent critics as to the significance of Robert Frost--the one contending that [688] this poetry could make no claim to great and lasting art, because of its exceedingly provincial character, unintelligible to readers unfamiliar to the section, and the other answering with the names of Dante and Burns. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that neither point of view touched the case of Frost with exactness.[…] We may count upon a certain universality of comprehension of life for life wherever it appears and with whatever eccentric gesture.” (Greenberg, 55)

Frost’s technique is thoroughly analyzed by Reginald Cook in his study, who notes that the main characteristic of his work is the organic form that the poet employs whenever he writes. Thus, Frost’s poetry has an unfolding quality, that is, it develops its ideas organically in the text and does not simply build around pre-established themes: “The first dominant aspect in Frost's theory is a preference for the organic and the natural over the geometrical and the self-conscious. Here he agrees with Spenser's ‘for soul is form and doth the body make,’ and with Emerson development of this idea in his essay on The Poet, when the latter refers to ‘a thought so passionate and alive that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.’ “(Cook, 46)

Most of these formal aspects and particularities are found in Frost’s Tree at My Window, which lends itself to a psychological interpretation like many of the author’s other works. The poem typically begins from a mood inspired to the author by the tree outside his window. It is an impression that the poet picks up from the natural world and which is further developed in the text in an almost unconscious manner. The ideas simply grow at the same time with the text: “From its origin in the vague mood, which committed the poet, until the last sentence is set down, the poem unfolds organically, like a leaf from a bud.”(Cook, 47)

Frost thus proceeds from an object that he describes to the feeling that it inspires in him: “[…] he proceeds ‘distinctly and clearly without confusion,’ from the object seen to the feeling which it arouses in him.”(Cook, 47)

The tree that stands outside and bears the changing of seasons and of weather becomes a symbol for the changing psychological moods of the poet. As many other poems by Frost, this one links a natural element to a psychological one. The tree’s “sensations” when he is shook by the winds and storms outside are contrasted with the ones experienced by man in his inner world. The tree can suffer only from the outer weather, but man has his inner weather, his own storm of thoughts and feelings. It is obvious that the tree and the man are not likened but rather contrasted here since Frost emphasizes the lack of profoundness in the tree’s sensations: “Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,/And thing next most diffuse to cloud,/ Not all your light tongues talking aloud/ Could be profound.” (Frost, 133)

The tree’s comparison to a dream-head which has “light tongues talking aloud” first introduces the connection between the natural and the human world. Like the man, the tree is subject to various sensations because of the weather, but none of these is really profound. The tree’s “light tongues” are not capable of real expression. The next stanza seems to correct this first observation as the poet remembers having seen the tree tormented by storms and different sensations: “But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,/ And if you have seen me when I slept,/You have seen me when I was taken and swept/ And all but lost.”(Frost, 133) However, the parallel between man and tree is again used for contrast: the man who is “taken and swept” in his dreams, an image which is meant to suggest the torments of the psychological world and to emphasize the fact that only man is able to experience these sensations in his inner world as well. The window with no curtain that stands between man and tree is thus symbolic of the partial separation between man and nature: the tree is, in a way, complementary to man, or the natural world is complementary to the inner world of man.

The poem thus expresses a philosophical idea as well: it discusses the uniqueness of man, of the human mind and imagination in the physical universe. The poet states that fate has used her imagination when putting the two heads together, that of the tree and that of man, that is, fate gave two aspects to the world the physical and the spiritual: “That day she put our heads together,/Fate had her imagination about her,/Your head so much concerned with outer,/Mine with inner, weather.” (Frost, 133) The two forms of weather are thus symbols for the spiritual and the natural world, which are similar in their manifestations but separated at the same time, as one is inner (the man is in the house) and the other external (the tree is outside in the natural world).

From a formal perspective, Tree at My Window develops a philosophical or psychological theme starting from an image that is seen or remembered. As the poet himself theorized, poetry makes a point out of the waste, raw material of observation: “Poetry builds from its own waste, and ‘the only thing that isn't waste is the point in a poem or story.’”(Cook, 47)

Another very important characteristic of the style of Tree at My Window is that of suggestibility, that is, Frost’s belief that the form, the flow and the sound pattern of the poem are the most important poetic means in transmitting an idea: “The best of a poem," Frost will tell you, ‘is when you first make it, the curve that it takes, the shape, the run, the flow, and then you can come back to it.’”(Cook, 48) The poet must find the most appropriate and economic means of expression of an idea by“[…] eliminating many words and impressions, and by making the exact choice”(Cook, 49) Thus, an accomplished poetical form is the one in which every words is capable of influencing the meaning of the other words: ‘Every word does something to the other words.’”(Cook, 50) In Tree at My Window, the parallel between the tree and man is built with the help of the substitution of the terms coming from the natural world with those coming from the natural one, and vice versa. The tree has a “dream-head”, and “light tongues”, while man is subject to the “inner weather”.

Thus, Robert Frost’s poetry distinguishes itself through the way in which it makes use of the natural imagery to express a metaphysical or psychological idea, and through the development of the theme in an organic form, that blends the content with the textual elements.

Works Cited:

  • Barron, Jonathan N. and J. Wilcox. Roads not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000
  • Budd, Louis J. and Edwin H. Cady. On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991
  • Cook, Reginald R. The Dimensions of Robert Frost. New York: Rinehart, 1958 Cox, Sidney. A Swinger of Birches: A Portrait of Robert Frost. New York: New York University Press, 1957
  • Doyle, John Robert Jr. The Poetry of Robert Frost: An Analysis. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1962
  • Frost, Robert. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930
  • Greenberg, Robert A. and James G. Hepburn. Robert Frost, an Introduction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961
  • Nitchie, George W. Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost: A Study of a Poet’s Convictions. Durham: Duke University Press, 1960

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