You Probably Haven't Read Robert Frost's Best Poems

by Irving Howe | January 29, 2014

Robert Frost: A Momentary Stay

March 23, 1963

photo credit: Keyston/Hulton Archive/Getty Images News

The best of Robert Frost, like the best of most writers, is small in quantity, narrow in scope and seldom the object of popular acclaim. There are a dozen or fifteen of his lyrics which register a completely personal voice, both as to subject and tone, and which it would be impossible to mistake for the work of anyone else. These lyrics mark Frost as a severe and unaccommodating writer: They are ironic, troubled, and ambiguous in many of the ways modernist poems are. Despite a lamentable gift for public impersonations and for shrewdly consolidating his success in a country that cares little about poetry, Frost has remained faithful to what Yeats calls "the modern mind in search of its own meanings."

This Frost seldom ventures upon major experiments in meter or diction, nor is he as difficult in reference and complex in structure as are the great poets of the 20th Century. But as he contemplates the thinning landscape of his world and repeatedly finds himself before closures of outlook and experience, he ends, almost against his will, in the company of the moderns. With their temperament and technique he has little in common; he shares with them only a vision of disturbance. This Frost is problematic in his style of thought, quite unlike the twinkling Sage who in his last years became the darling of the nation. At his best Frost is a poet of elusiveness, wit and modesty; he does not posture in blank verse nor does he reinforce the complacence of his audience; he can even approach a hard and unmannered wisdom.

Frost has also written a small number of memorable poems in another vein: dramatic monologues and dialogues set in northern New England which present realistic vignettes of social exhaustion. While neither as original or distinguished as the best of his lyrics, they often live in one's mind, somewhat as a harshly monochromatic picture might. And that apart, from a few scattered pieces, represents the sum of his first-rate work.

To many readers this will seem an outrageous judgment and to others a harsh one; but it is neither. What I have said about Frost can and must be said about all but the greatest writers. Measured against the strictest critical standards, my judgment, if at all correct, should be taken as praise.

In his long poems most of them uniting satire and didacticism, Frost is at his worst. An early long poem, "New Hampshire," foreshadows the sly folksiness that would later endear him to native moralists, lady schoolteachers, and miscellaneous middlebrows. The verse is limp; the manner coy; the thought a display of provincialism. In the least happy sense of the word, the poem is mannered:  Frost catering to his idiosyncrasies and minor virtuosities. Even when he is clever ("Lately in converse with a New York alec/About the new school of pseudo-phallic"), it is with the cleverness of a man holding fast to his limitations.

Twenty years ago Malcolm Cowley, writing in this journal, compared Frost to Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau and shrewdly noticed the narrowing of sensibility he had come, at his worst, to represent:

"Height, breadth and strength: he

falls short in all these qualities of

the great New Englanders. And the

other quality for which he is often

praised, his utter faithfulness to the

New England spirit, is not one of

the virtues they knowingly cultivated.

They realized that the New England

spirit, when it stands alone, is

inclined to be narrow and arithmetical.

It has reached its finest

growth only when cross-fertilized

with alien philosophies."

Much of Frost's later work—"A Masque of Reason," "Build Soil," "A Masque of Mercy" and the bulk of "Steeple Bush"—illustrates the hardening of his public pose. It is a pose of crustiness and sometimes even heartlessness, and it reflects the feeling of a writer that he need no longer engage with the problems of his time. In such writing he is the dealer in packaged whimsies, the homespun Horace scrutinizing man, God, and liberalism. Because political fashions changed during the last decades of his life, the aged Frost found himself being applauded for precisely the sententia which had previously, and with good reason, been attacked. But now his hard-shelled individualism won the admiration of readers who in their own experience had increasingly to acknowledge that it would no longer do: Perhaps that is why they wished to admire it in poetry.

In these poems conversational tone slips into garrulousness, conservatism declines into smallness of mind, and public declamation ends as mere vanity of pronouncement. If this were all we had of Frost, there would be no choice but completely to accept the powerful attack launched upon him a few years ago by Yvor Winters. Frost, wrote Winters, had a way of "mistaking whimsical impulse for moral choice," a kind of irrational romanticism that left him a "spiritual drifter." Reading such passages as the one in "A Masque of Reason" where God declares—

I'm going to tell Job why I tortured

him

And trust it won't be adding to the

torture.

I was just showing off to the Devil,

Job.

—one is strongly tempted to go along with Winters. Frost permits himself such mindless flippancies because he knows that by now his audience has been trained to admire his faults at the very point where they become magnified by cleverness. It is a familiar story: The writer who does not struggle to overcome his limitations will end by parodying them.

Frost the national favorite is a somewhat different figure. He is a writer of lyrics that often achieve a flawed or partial distinction: the language clear, the picture sharp, the rhythm ingratiating. "Birches," "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Pasture"—such poems are not contemptible but neither are they first-rate. They lack the urge to move past easy facilities that characterizes major writing. They depend too much on stock sentiments, especially the unconsidered respect good Americans feel obliged to show for "nature." They yield too readily to the common notion of poetic genius as an unaccountable afflatus:

At least don't use your mind too

hard.

But trust my instinct—I'm a bard.

And they create a music too winsome and soothing:

This saying good-by on the edge of

the dark

And the cold to an orchard so young

in the bark

Reminds me of all that can happen

to harm

An orchard away at the end of the

farm.

The appeal of such poems rests upon Frost's use of what might be called a mode of false pastoral. Traditionally, pastoral poetry employs an idyllic rural setting with apparently simple characters in order to advance complex ideas and sentiments, often implying a serious criticism of the society in which the poet lives. The pastoral seems to turn away in disgust from urban or sophisticated life and to celebrate the virtues of bucolic retreat, but it does not propose that we rest with either simple characters or simple virtues. It accepts the convention of simplicity in order to demonstrate the complexity of the real; and only in an inferior kind of romantic poetry is the pretense of the pastoral taken at face value.

In his inferior poems, however, Frost comes very close to doing precisely that. He falls back upon the rural setting as a means of endorsing the common American notion that a special wisdom is to be found, and found only, among tight-lipped farmers, village whittlers, and small-town eccentrics. Overwhelmingly urban, our society displays an unflagging nostalgia for the assumed benefits and beauties of country life. Between the social realities and the popular images there is a fatal split: Millions of Americans who live in cities and suburbs preen themselves on homely virtues they neither possess nor could profitably employ if they did. They like to fancy themselves as good rugged country folk, or suppose they would have a better and happier life if they were. And the second-rank Frost is their poet.

He provides them with ennobling texts which both share in and reinforce the false consciousness in which they immerse themselves. He becomes his audience, mirroring and justifying its need for pastoral fancies. The more a magazine like The New Yorker influences the quality of sophisticated middle-class life, the more will many Americans feel a desire for some assuaging counter-image-woodsy, wholesome, a bit melancholic—such as Frost can provide. As a writer who bends his gift to the sincere misapprehensions of his readers, he has become a figure deeply integral to our culture; and the middlebrows who adore him must in fairness be granted the right to claim him as their own. All that can be said by way of qualification is that not the whole or best of Frost is theirs. Matters are more complicated still. Frost is so skillful a performer that some of his most popular poems, like "Acquainted With the Night," "After Apple-Picking," and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are also among his finest. It might be convenient, but is also a dangerous simplification, to draw a sharp line between his popular and superior poems. The two have a way of shading into one another, as has always been the case with those major writers of the past two centuries, like Dickens, Mark Twain, and Sholom Aleichem, who managed to speak both to cultivated persons and to the mass audience. And part of what Frost's ordinary readers admire or look for in his poetry they are, I think, right in wanting: a renewal of primary experience, a relatedness to the physical world, a wisdom resting on moral health.

In his dramatic poems Frost seldom falls back upon ready-made pastoral. These are poems of rural realism: New England as a depressed landscape, country people who are poor and deprived, families torn apart by derangement. The best of this group, such as "Home Burial" and "Servant to Servants," are studies in frustration, often the frustration of women who can no longer bear the weight of suffering. There is no "community" behind these figures, no sustaining world in which they can move: There is no Tilbury Town or Winesburg Ohio to define social boundaries. The men and women of Frost's poems are isolated; they are figures left over by a dead or dying culture; and the world they live in has begun turning into stone.

Powerful as some of these dramatic pieces are, they share a number of faults. Frost lacks the patience, the involvement, and the deep concern with moral nuance that are essential to a writer wishing to evoke human character. He tries to conform to the hard outlines of economical portraiture and to avoid the kind of detail that would be appropriate only to a novel, but the result is often that the poems rely too much on photographic anecdote. The events they depict are supposed to speak for themselves, but events seldom do.

Precisely the shading and implication one misses in Frost's dramatic poems are what distinguish the dramatic poems of his immediate New England predecessor, Edwin Arlington Robinson. Though not nearly so brilliant a virtuoso as Frost, Robinson writes from a fullness of experience and a tragic awareness that Frost cannot equal. No other American poet commands so rich a sense of moral life as does Robinson in "Eros Turannos," "The Wandering Jew," "Rembrandt to Rembrandt," and "The Three Taverns"— poems beside which Frost's work in the same genre seems stiff in portrayal and crude in psychology. Frost has a strong grasp on melodramatic extremes of behavior, usually extremes of loneliness and psychic exhaustion, but he lacks almost entirely Robinson's command of the middle range of experience. The life of Frost's poems is post-social, and the perspective from which it is seen a desperate one. Frost achieves a cleaner verbal surface and a purer diction, but Robinson is more abundant in moral detail and insight. Compared strictly on their performances as dramatic poets, Robinson seems a major poet and Frost a minor one. For while Frost can be a master of nuance, it is only, or almost only, when he speaks in his own voice.

And that he does when he bears down with full seriousness in his small number of distinguished lyrics. Here the archness and sentimentalism have been ruthlessly purged; he is writing for sheer life. To read these poems, as they confront basic human troubles and obliquely notice the special dislocations of our time, can be unnerving—for they offer neither security nor solace. They are the work of a poet who, without the mediation of formal thought or religious sentiments, gives close and hard battle to his own experience. They seek to capture those moments when we confront experience in its bareness, observing some natural event or place with a pure sense of the dynamics of reception. They set out to record such tremors of being in their purity and isolation: as if through a critical encounter with the physical world one could move beyond the weariness of selfhood and into the repose of matter. But Frost, now supremely hard on himself, also knows with which these amounts are felt makes certain their rapid dissolution, and that what then remains is the familiar self, once again its own prisoner. Approaching a pure state of being, these lyrics return with the necessity of shaped meaning. And in their somewhat rueful turning back to the discipline of consciousness, the effect is both painful and final: they conclude with the reflection that the central quandary of selfhood, that it must forever spiral back to its own starting point, cannot be dissolved. That Frost sees and struggles with this dilemma seems to me one reason for saying that he inhabits the same intellectual climate as those modern writers whose presumed disorder is often compared unfavorably to his supposed health.

Frost's superior lyrics include: "Storm Fear," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "The Oven Bird," "Dust of Snow," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Spring Pools," "Acquainted With the Night," "The Lovely Shall Be Choosers," "Desert Places," "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep," "Provide, Provide," "Design," "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length," "The Most of It," "Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same," "Directive," and a few others.

These poems are brief, and they demand from the reader a sharp recognition of their brevity. They focus upon a moment of intense realization, a lighting-up of hope and a dimming-down to wisdom. They attempt not a full seizure of an event, but an attack upon it from the oblique. They present a scene in the natural world, sometimes one that is "purely" natural and apparently unmarred by a human observer, but more often one that brings the “I” of the poem starkly against a natural process, so that the stress falls upon a drama of encounter and withdrawal. The event or situation—how spring pools will be sucked dry by the absorptive power of trees, in "Spring Pools"; how an albino spider perched on a "white heal-all" forms a dumb-show of purposeless terror, in "Design"; how the loneliness of a winter moment encompasses an observer unawares, in "Desert Places"; how a family caught in a fearful storm may not, unaided, be able to rescue itself, in "Storm Fear"—is rendered with a desire to make a picture that will seem complete in itself, but that will also, through the very perfection of its completeness, carry an aura of suggestion beyond itself. Frost allows for the sensuous pleasure of apprehending a moment in nature, but he soon cuts it short, since the point is not to linger over scene or pleasure but to move beyond them, along a line of speculation. Perhaps that is what Frost meant when he said that poetry "begins in delight and ends in wisdom."

These lyrics can be placed on a spectrum ranging from a few that seem entirely focused upon a natural event to those which move past the event toward explicit statement. Despite the critical dogma which looks down upon statement in poetry, there is nothing inherently superior about the first of these kinds; Frost's greatest poems, as it happens, are those which end upon a coda of reflection. "Spring Pools" is an example of a poem that seems, at first, merely a snapshot of the external world:

These pools that, though in forests,

  still reflect

The total sky almost without defect.

And like the flowers beside them,

chill and shiver.

Will like the flowers beside them

soon be gone.

And yet not out by any brook or

river.

But up by roots to bring dark foliage

on.

The trees that have it in their pent

up buds

To darken nature and be summer

woods—

Let them think twice before they use

their powers

To blot out and drink up and sweep

away

These flowery waters and these

watery flowers

From snow that melted only yesterday.

As a rendering of a natural event, the poem is precise, expert and complete. Exactness of description can be very moving, and so it is in "Spring Pools"; but beyond that, the poem—partly through a skillful play with prepositions in the tenth line—suggests how hard yet necessary it is that the brief loveliness of youth be sucked dry to form the strength of our prime. Where the poem moves beyond description and implication is in its problematic use of a parallelism between natural event and human experience, involving the ways in which they seem both close and ultimately distant. An implied equivalence between nature and man quickly brings a writer to the edge of the sentimental; but Frost does not cross it, for the poem, in its descriptive self-sufficiency, leaves to the reader the problem of what symbolic import to infer and how much tact he can muster in defending the poem against his inference. It is a poem about spring pools, the poignancy of youth, and problems of thinking, not in any hierarchy of value which dissolves everything into the "spiritual," but in a poised equality of perceiving.

Most of Frost's superior lyrics end with direct statement, and one measure of their success is his ability to make the statement seem an adequate climax to the remarkable descriptive writing that has preceded it. The problem is not one to be approached with a priori notions about the relationship between imagery and statement in verse. When Cleanth Brooks writes that "Frost does not think  through his images; he requires statements," he is guilty of a modernist dogma to the extent that he means his remark as an adverse criticism. Poetry has always been full of statement, even the poetry of many modernist writers who are supposed to confine themselves to symbolic indirection; and the critical problem in regard to Frost, or any other writer, always hinges on the extent to which the concluding statement is related, through logical fulfillment or irony, to the texture of the poem, and the extent to which the statement is in its own right serious in thought and notable in diction.

In "Desert Places" Frost starts with a description of a natural scene and then, in a very moving way, brings in the human observer:

Snow falling and night falling fast,

oh, fast

In a field I looked into going past.

And the ground almost covered

smooth in snow.

But a few weeds and stubble showing

last.

 

The woods around it have it—it is

theirs.

All animals are smothered in their

lairs.

I am too absent-spirited to count;

The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness

Will be more lonely ere it will be

less—

A blanker whiteness of benighted

snow

With no expression, nothing to express.

Thus far, the poem is very fine, but there follows the concluding stanza—

They cannot scare me with their

empty spaces

Between stars - on stars where no

human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert

places.

—in which Frost collapses into the kind of coyness one has come to associate with his second-rank poems. Cut out the final stanza and "Desert Places" is a perfect small lyric; as it stands, the poem is a neat illustration of Frost's characteristic strengths and weaknesses; but the weakness of the last four lines is due not to the fact that Frost ventures a statement, but to the quality of the statement he ventures.

In most of the lyrics I have named Frost handles this problem with assurance. "The Oven Bird" presents a picture of a bird which in mid-summer sings loudly, as if in celebration of the lapsed spring:

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went

down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we call

the fall.

The writing here, both vivid and witty, is satisfying enough, and the theme, though treated with greater toughness, resembles that of "Spring Pools." The bird is assigned, as a pleasing conceit and not a sentimental indulgence, something of the poet's stoical resilience:

The bird would cease and be as

other birds

But that he knows in singing not to

sing.

Then come the concluding lines, in which Frost achieves a triumph of modulated rhetoric, a statement that can be regarded as an epitaph of his whole career:

The question that he frames in all

but words

Is what to make of a diminished

thing.

Many of Frost's first-rate lyrics unite with similar success a rapid passage of description and a powerful concluding statement. The familiar "Acquainted With the Night" owes a good part of its haunting quality not merely to Frost's evocation of a man walking the streets alone at night—

I have stood still and stopped the

sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

But not to call me back or say goodbye;

—but also to the lines that immediately follow, lines of enigmatic statement indicating an ultimate dissociation between the natural world and human desire:

And further still at an unearthly

height.

One luminary clock against the sky

 

Proclaimed the time was neither

wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the

night.

In discussing such poems it has become a commonplace to say, as W. H. Auden does, that Frost's style "approximates to ordinary speech" and that "the music is always that of the speaking voice, quiet and sensible." This does not seem an adequate way of describing Frost's lyrics, and perhaps not of any poetry worth reading a second time. Try reading "Spring Pools" or "The Most of It" in a voice approximating to ordinary speech: It cannot be done, short of violating the rhythm of the poem. Quiet these lyrics may be, "sensible" they are not. They demand a rhythm of enticement and immersion, a hastening surrender to unreflective nature—which means a rising and tensing of the voice; and then a somewhat broken or subdued return to reflectiveness. They are poems that must be read with a restrained intoning, quite different from "ordinary speech," though milder than declamation.

It is a way of reading enforced by their structure and purpose: the structure and purpose of wisdom-poems. Frost's best lyrics aim at the kind of wisdom that is struck aslant and not to be settled into the comforts of an intellectual system. It is the wisdom of a mind confessing its nakedness, caught in its aloneness. Frost writes as a modern poet who shares in the loss of firm assumptions and seeks, through a disciplined observation of the natural world and a related sequel of reflection, to provide some tentative basis for existence, some "momentary stay," as he once remarked, "against confusion." The best of his poems are neither indulgences in homely philosophy nor wanderings in romanticism. If anything, they are antipathetic to the notion that the universe is inherently good or delightful or hospitable to our needs. The symbols they establish in relation to the natural world are not, as in transcendentalist poetry, tokens of benevolence. These lyrics speak of the hardness and recalcitrance of the natural world; of its absolute indifference to our needs and its refusal to lend itself to an allegory of affection; of the certainty of physical dissolution; but also of the refreshment that can be found through a brief submission to the alienness of nature, always provided one recognizes the need to move on, not stopping for rest but remaining locked, alone, in consciousness. The lyric that best illustrates these themes is perhaps "The Most of It," which dramatizes our desire for cosmic solace and the consequence of discovering we cannot have it. I shall end by quoting this poem, because it seems best to illustrate what I have been trying to say, because it is the kind of farewell that Frost might have appreciated, and because it happens also to be one of the greatest poems ever written by an American:

He thought he kept the universe

alone;

For all the voice in answer he could

wake

Was but the mocking echo of his

own

From some tree-hidden cliff across

the lake.

Some morning from the boulderbroken

beach

He would cry out on life, that what

it wants

Is not its own love back in copy

speech.

But counter-love, original response.

And nothing ever came of what he

cried

Unless it was the embodiment that

crashed

In the cliff's talus on the other side.

And then in the far distant water

splashed.

But after a time allowed for it to

swim.

Instead of proving human when it

near’ed

And someone else additional to him.

As a great buck it powerfully appeared.

Pushing the crumpled water up

ahead.

And landed pouring like a waterfall.

And stumbled through the rocks

with horny tread.

And forced the underbrush—and

that was all.

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