Dark Darker Darkest

by Christopher Benfey | January 22, 2007

The Notebooks of Robert Frost

Edited by Robert Faggen

(Harvard University Press, 792 pp., $39.95)

ROBERT FROST'S POETRY is full of actions taken on obscure impulse. A man reins in his horse on "the darkest evening of the year" to watch the woods fill up with snow. Why does he interrupt his journey? "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Another man hesitates where "two roads diverged in a yellow wood" and takes "the one less traveled by." These poems are so familiar that it is almost painful to quote them. Others less well known are no less driven by impulse. "Into My Own," the sonnet that opens Frost's first book of poems, evokes a distant prospect of "dark trees": "I should not be withheld but that some day/Into their vastness I should steal away." Every true poem, Frost wrote in "The Figure a Poem Makes," the lovely little manifesto that served as the preface to his Collected Poems of 1939, is the child of impulse: "It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of lifenot necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion."

In the summer of 1912, following his own impulse to "steal away," Frost abandoned a life of raising chickens and teaching school in small towns on the outskirts of Boston and took his family to England, with little money and no real prospects for making more. The Frosts had four children; two others died in infancy. Elinor, Frost's high school sweetheart turned long-suffering wife, acquiesced in this impulsive scheme, as she did in so many others; besides, she confessed to a wish to "live under thatch." At thirty-eight, Frost had enough poems to fill two books and part of a third (though no publisher), and a terrific theory of how those poems had gotten written. The poems were of two main kinds. In the first group were short lyrics of an extraordinarily high level of craftsmanship. In the second were longer poemsstories,reallythat could be as harrowing ("Home Burial" or "A Servant to Servants") as a Hemingway short story, or ruminative and wry like an extended joke allowed to go off the tracks.

The theory, which looms large in The Notebooks of Robert Frostseven hundred pages of wisdom and prophecy, raving and rant,expertly edited and annotated by Robert Faggeninvolved what Frost called "sentence-sounds," primal patterns of intonation and impulse that, in his view, precede and underlie the words of a conversationor a good poem. Birds have their song; humans have their sentence-sounds: "So many and no more belong to the human throat, just as so many runs and quavers belong to the throat of the cat-bird, so many to the chickadee." The job of the poet was to collect them and to identify them, like an ornithologist in the outback, and then to set memorable words to the sounds.

England was good to Frost. He quickly found a publisher for the poems, and also a friend, the extraordinary writer Edward Thomas, who was as excited about the theory as he was. The shorter poems were gathered in A Boy's Will, the title borrowed without acknowledgment (since everyone knew its provenance anyway) from a poem called "My Lost Youth" by Longfellow, who had borrowed the phrase from Herder's translation of a Lapland lament: Knabenwille ist Windeswille, or "A boy's will is the wind's will." Something like Longfellow's spectacular success with the common reader was what Frost in England already had in mind for himself. As he wrote to his friend and former pupil John Bartlett in 1913, "There is a kind of success called `of esteem' and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands.... I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do by taking thought."

The last phrase is peculiar, and characteristic of Frost. "By taking thought" sounds like it means "deliberately," but it also probably means "without sacrificing thought," hence "without dumbing down," as well. That January Frost had met Ezra Pound, "my quasi-friend," who represented the "critical few who are supposed to know." Pound told Frost that he had better adopt free verse or he would let Frost "perish by neglect." Pound liked the poems, though, and wrote an admiring review of A Boy's Will when it appeared in April.

The longer poems became Frost's second and greatest book of poems, North of Boston, a title that he took from the real estate ads inthe Boston newspapers. Frost's working title had been "Farm Servants and Other People." In its array of lonely eccentrics and troubled couples, North of Boston bears a slight resemblance toSherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which Frost admired, and also to Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. But a better analogy might be with such talk-heavy stories of Hemingway's as "Hills Like White Elephants" or "The Sea Change," in which a conflict between two speakers is gradually revealed in language by turns figurative and emotionally raw. The bereaved mother in "Home Burial" lashes out at her husband after he has dug the grave for their dead baby:

"I can repeat the very words you were


'Three foggy mornings and one rainy


Will rot the best birch fence a man

can build.'

Think of it, talk like that at such a


What had how long it takes a birch

to rot

To do with what was in the darkened


It is not really a question, and Frost does not use a question mark. But the father stands for poetry here, for metaphorical language, while the literal- minded mother (who isn't, as Frost might say, "at home in the metaphor") refuses to take a hint.


THE BIGGEST SURPRISE in The Notebooks of Robert Frost, sixty years of private jottings in preparation for poems and prose, is the spectacular profusion of epigrams, aphorisms, and what Frost called "dark sayings." Frost once wrote, in relation to Emerson, that "I don't like obscurity and obfuscation, but I do like dark sayings I must leave the clearing of to time." He remarks in an early notebook entry that "It is best to be flattered ... when your simile passes for a folk saying from a locality." Certain phrases recur many times in these notebooks, as Frost worries them into final shape: "Great thoughts grave thoughts" or (later used as the title for a poem) "Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length." Another saying, repeated at least a dozen times in the course of the notebooks, consists of three stark words, "dark darker darkest"a sort of ominous refrain for the whole.

Faggen calls Frost's notebookswhich are neither diaries nor journals but rather workbooks or outlets for thinking"a chaotic laboratory in which many of his inventions went through constant experimentation and trial." While the notebooks "embrace a wide variety of forms," Faggen notes, "fragmentary notations and suggestively epigrammatic meditations predominate." In an undated notebook entry, for example, Frost marks his intention to "round up a lot of wise saying[s] such as I suspect we have from the Spartans such as Good fences make good neighbors." North of Boston opens with two men arguing about the merit of building walls to separate their property, even as they repair the stone wall that divides cows on one side from apple trees on the other. The poem begins oddly and grandiloquently, like a preacher or a blowhard politician: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The line from the poem that everyone knows best (it was quoted, predictably, in recent congressional debates about the merits of building a wallalong the border with Mexico) is the saying "Good fences make good neighbors."

The proverb is itself a little wall of words that the speaker of the poem, in his wheedling and deliberately annoying fashion, istrying to undermine. "Why do they make good neighbors?" he asks,sounding the patient schoolteacher's note, while looking down onhis farmer neighbor as though he were a cloddish student.

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by

the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage


He moves in darkness as it seems

to me,

Not of woods only and the shade

of trees.

He will not go behind his father's


And he likes having thought of it

so well

He says again, "Good fences make

good neighbors."

"Mending Wall" is typical of several of Frost's finest poems in theway it builds itself on two opposing "sayings" held in momentaryequilibrium: in this case the "dark" saying of the laconic farmerand the apparently more enlightened position of the underminingspeaker: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

A SIMILAR OPPOSITION of sayings lies at the emotional heart of Frost's wonderful poem "The Death of the Hired Man," first published in this magazine in 1915, in which a man and wife gently debate the merits of providing shelter for an old man who was an unreliable worker in his prime and is useless now. "Warren," the wife says, "he has come home to die:/You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time." Competing definitions of home follow. First the husband:

"Home is the place where, when you

have to go there,

They have to take you in."

And then the wife:

"I should have called it

Something you somehow haven't

to deserve."

A whole intellectual, political, and emotional terrain is covered in that simple opposition: justice versus mercy; welfare versus charity; male (in Frost's mind, at least) versus female. In the notebooks, Frost writes that the "most beautiful thing in the worldis conflicting interests where both are good. " Frost wanted his reader to hesitate between the two definitions of home, and not be too quick to adopt the woman's as superior. As he told an audience at Haverford College in 1937, "The thing about that, the danger, is that you shall make the man too hard. That spoils it." Not spoiling it, in Frost's view, depended on hearing the "sentence-sounds" accurately.

It sometimes seems that every American poet after Poe has had to work up a theory in the light of which his or her poems are to be read. Many of the notations in the notebooks concern the theory of poetry that Frost had formulated by the time of his English sojourn. Frost's theory about what he was up to in his poems is more consistently interesting than the self-justifications to be found in the prose writings of Pound ("make it new") or Williams ("no ideas but in things"), Marianne Moore or Wallace Stevens. "I give you a new definition of a sentence," Frost wrote to Bartlett in early 1914, parodying Jesus's new commandment. "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words are strung. You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, butit is bad for the clothes." Frost imagined that it would be possible that these sentence-sounds "could be collected in a book though I don't atpresent see on what system they would be catalogued." He offered some examples of such verbal gestures: "Put it there, old man! (Offering your hand)"; "I ain't a going hurt you, so you needn't be scared."

Frost was interested in the relation between language and action, in how we do things with words. We know from the notebooks that Frost thought of calling one of his Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1936 "Poetry as Performance (Feat of Words)." Though the text of those lectures is lost, we can get some sense from the notebooks of what Frost was after. We find him resisting the idea of words as mere description, existing in a separate sphere from deeds. "It is the common way to think of the sentence as saying something," he wrote. "It must do something as well." The words accompanying a handshake were one example; blessings and curses were another. "I was always in favor of the solid curse as one of the most beautiful figures," he wrote in his essay on Emerson. "We were warned against it in school for its sameness. It depends for variety on the tones of saying it and the situations." Frost's poems often turn on such "feats of words," such as the spell in "Mending Wall" or the curse and the husband's closing threat ("I'll follow and bring you backby force. I will!") in "Home Burial."

Frost's theory of sentence-sounds might profitably be compared to what came to be known as "ordinary language" philosophy, first developed in the 1930s and finding its fullest expression in thework of the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin. His How to Do Things With Words is concerned with precisely the kind of situations,where sentences actually do something, that interested Frost. Austin called these sentencesutterances such as marriage vows andchristenings and challenges to duels"performatives." Like Frost, Austin was impatient with the jargon of experts and sedentary theorists, preferring to do what he called "field work" in the ways people actually talked. "When we examine what we should say when, what words we should use in what situations, we are looking againnot merely at words (or 'meanings,' whatever they may be) but also at the realities we use the words to talk about."

Ordinary language was best for the purpose, Austin claimed, since "our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations." Such formulations,in Austin's view, were likely to be "more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our armchairs of an afternoonthe mostfavored alternative method." In a famous paper published in 1957, Austin proposed "excuses" as an "admirable topic" for field work, since "we can discuss at least clumsiness, or absence of mind, orinconsiderateness, even spontaneousness, without remembering whatKant thought." While Austin's theory of "speech acts" has had a significant impact on contemporary literary theory, Frost's suggestive ideas about the relation between ordinary language and sentence-sounds await their full application.

Edward Thomas was so excited by Frost's theory of sentence-sounds that he wanted to write a book about its implications forliterary criticism. Frost's injunctions offered a way to preserve musicality in verse without adopting the notion that "the music ofwords," as in Swinburne and Tennyson, was "a matter of harmonized vowels and consonants." In the notebooks, Frost refers to the latter as "death by jingle." At Frost's instigation, Thomas, who made a living by writing literary journalism and hack biographies, took up writing poetry himself, with extraordinary results. In poems such as "Rain" ("Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon") and "The Owl" and "Thaw," Thomas gave a heartbreaking and wholly original turn to Frost's ways with a flexible sentence strung across the grid of meter.

FROST HAD MANY occasions for grief in his lifea sister anddaughter committed to insane asylums, a son who committed suicide."Life is punishment," he wrote in a stark notebook entry. "All we can contribute to it is gracefulness in taking the punishment." But Thomas's death in France in the spring of 1917he was killed onEaster Monday by a German shellwas a terrible blow: "I hadn't a plan for the future that didn't include him." Recently Robert Stilling, a graduate student at the University of Virginia,discovered an unpublished poem, written in Frost's hand in a friend's copy of North of Boston, called "War Thoughts at Home." The poem, recently published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, begins with a deft description of blue jays fighting "On the backside of the house/ Where it wears no paint to the weather, " and then shifts to the wife's thoughts of her absent husband, who is in "a winter camp/Where soldiers for France are made." Glyn Maxwell, while admiring the beginning, makes a persuasive case for why the poem, with its parallel of bird rage and human war, doesn't quite come off. Since the poem "might be about the Thomases," Maxwell suggests, Frost, while "forcing ... the underbrush" in that line about the winter camp, is finally too tactful to invade the woman's private thoughts.

Frost thought his theory of sentence-sounds had implications for classroom teaching, a profession that he had abandoned not becauseof ineptitude but because he was so good at it, so consumed by it, that it took away from the energies he thought were better spent on poems. After his return to the United States in 1915, he was offered a job by Alexander Meiklejohn, the progressive youngpresident of Amherst College. Thus began a long and sometimes difficult association that continued until Frost's death in 1963. He was a dazzling and irreverent teacher, and you can get a feel for what he sounded like in his brilliant set of aphorisms, first worked up in the notebooks, titled "Poetry and School." "We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven't learned in High School," he wrote. He did not like most ofwhat passed for teaching at Amherst, a ritual exchange of "progressive"  views on this and that. Exasperated by the results ,he wrote in the notebooks that "Going to school is a game like running the gauntlet in which the object is to see if you can get through without being hurt too much by the books in the hands of the teachers." Sounding a theme in the notebooks that he often expressed elsewhere, Frost wrote: "Half our conversation is no more than votingsignifying our adherence to some well known idea in the field. What's the good of it?"


FROST'S POLITICS FOLLOWED from his poetics. You might say that his party affiliation was Heraclitean: "The strength of a man is in the extremity of the opposites he can hold together by force." He viewed social arrangements as a clash of opposing views held in the best of times in temporary balance"a momentary stay againstconfusion." It is notoriously difficult to pin Frost down to a political position, right or left. Though the dating of the notebook entries is conjectural at best, Frost's fullest forays into political thinking seem, predictably, to come from the 1930s. Here, in his embrace of a populist individualism and his distaste for anything smacking of progress ("Leave progress to take care ofitself," he wrote), he often sounds like a fellow traveler of JohnCrowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, the Southern Agrarians of the post-Depression era.

One of the revelations of Jay Parini's recent biography of Frostwas how close Frost felt to this group of reactionary writers, telling Warren on once occasion that he considered himself "aYankee Agrarian." Frost's own Harvard-educated Yankee father had been a Southern sympathizer as a teenager during the Civil War and had named his son Robert Lee Frost after his hero. But Frost, unlike the Southern Agrarians, had no residual indignation against the breakup of the Southern plantations or the so-called "Southern way of life." Small farms in New England were his vision of the good, the difficult, the hard- bitten life. He thought that industrialism and socialism were a threat to what he called "the agricultural end of our system." He worried that "abolishing the capitalist would mean abolishing the farmer included." He hated big government because he liked small farms, not because Lincoln had freed the slaves.

"Radicalism is young folly," Frost wrote in a characteristicnotebook entry. "Conservatism is old stupidity." And yet conservatives were not wrong to sense that on many fronts they had an ally in Frost. "The only things I ever wished were different were the moon and goodness," he wrote: he wished the moon weren't single, but didn't specify how goodness might be altered. Frost disapproved of the way that the New Deal legislated charity, suspecting that Eleanor Roosevelt had hoodwinked her husband intosuch an unmanly scheme: "Mercy to the weak is handicapping the strong." He distrusted any government built around "the poor the unpretentious the ineffectual and the whipped." He had a Nietzschean distaste for the New Testament as a "poor man's book," preferring what he took to be the hard-headed wisdom of the Old Testament prophets, "who can manage to bear it that there must begood and bad losers."

Frost resisted anything that smacked of utopian thinking or utopian schemes for improving society. "Country people are never Utopian," he wrote. Over and over, we find him writing in the notebooks, invarious guises, that "Civilization is the opposite of Utopia." "Utopia is a recourse of the tribe in emaciation," he proclaimed. "Civilization is an exuberance of peace and plenty. It is beautifully dangerous in its capacity for self destruction." He confessed: "I hate the poor don't you Yes and I hate the rich. I hate them both as such." He speculated in the privacy of these notebooks that maybe slavery wasn't such a bad thing, as long as race was left out of it. "The mistake of the south," he wrote, "was in not enslaving of their own race." And wasn't welfare, he asked,with its exchange of money for good behavior, a form of slavery anyway? "Let us not gag at words."

Such views, even in the sanitized form in which they entered Frost's public poems (such as "Two Tramps in Mud Time") and speeches, were abhorrent to many readers during the 1930s. Yet they derived from aview of human existence best expressed in that mantra of "dark darker darkest," which Frost glossed in a characteristic fragment (lightly edited here, with variants and excisions deleted):


Here where we are life wells up as a strong spring perpetually piling water on water with the dancing high lights upon it. But it flows away on all sides as into a marsh of its own making. It flows away into poverty into insanity into crime. Now like all other great things poverty has its bad side and so has insanity and so has crime. The good side must not be lost sight of. Poverty inspiring ambition. Poverty has done so much good in the world I should be the last to want to see it abolished entirely. Only insanity can lift ability into genius. Crime is that smoldering defiance of law that at times bursts forth enobled into rebellion and revolution. But there is a bad side to all three poverty insanity and crime and this a dark truth and it is undeniably a dark truth.


But dark as it is there is darker still. For we haven't enough to us to govern life and keep it from its worst manifestations. We haven't fingers and toes enough to tend to all the stops. Life is always breaking at too many points at once. Government is concerned to reduce the badness but it must fail to get rid of it. There is a residue of extreme sorrow that nothing can be done about and over it poetry lingers to brood with sympathy. I have heard poetry charged with having a vested interest in sorrow.

Dark darker darkest.

Dark as it is that there are these sorrows and darker still that wecan do so little to be rid of them the darkest is still to come.The darkest is that perhaps we ought not to want to get rid ofthem. They be the fulfillment of exertion. What life craves most is signs of life. A cat can entertain itself only briefly with a block of wood. It can deceive itself longer with a spool or a ball. But give it a mouse for consummation. Response response. The certaintyof a source outside of selforiginal response whether love or hateor fear.


In this extraordinary passage, one can see Frost moving toward anethical position beyond good and evil, where a vitalist commitmentto life itself comes before all other claims. His position seems almost pre-Socratic: measure in all things, a clash of opposites,ceaseless flux. Frost's pessimism can itself be vivifying. In his preface to Edwin Arlington Robinson's "King Jasper," Frost wrote memorably: "Give us immedicable woeswoes that nothing can be done forwoes flat and final."

"Original response" was a phrase Frost used in his poem "The Most ofIt," in which a lonely man longing for community of some kind finds an ambiguous answer in a great buck lunging into the water. In the passage just quoted, by contrast, there is an unmistakable embrace of cruelty in that line about the cat: "But give it a mouse for consummation." What exactly is the equivalent human"entertainment" envisioned here? John F. Kennedy was not wrong in enlisting Frost in the great fight against collectivism. "The separation is as important as the connection," he wrote repeatedly."True in a poem and true in society." But on other points of a democratic (or Democratic) agendapoverty, civil rights,peaceFrost was at best a quixotic ally; and at worst he could be callous, small-minded, paranoid, and cruel. Imagine Frost murmuring at the White House, as he does in these notebooks, that "of course poverty has its bad side just the same as war has." Of course.

PERHAPS WHAT IS most striking in Frost's long-running success as traveling bard, culminating in his windswept recital of his jingoistic sonnet "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration, is the image that he managed to maintain of the avuncular old patriot barding about. "One ordeal of Mark Twain," he wrote in the Robinson preface, "was the constant fear that his occluded seriousness would be overlooked." One task of the criticism of Frostin the work ofRichard Poirier, William H. Pritchard, Jay Parini, and othershas been to make sure that Frost's own occluded seriousnessis never scanted or ignored.

In September 1946, Lionel Trilling attended one of Frost's performances at Kenyon College and was appalled by what he saw. Frost was seventy-two at the time, and had long since perfected his routine: "he makes himself the buffoongoes into a trance of aged childishnesshe is the child who is rebelling against all the serious people who are trying to organize himtake away his will and individuality." While conceding that Frost's speech was "full of brilliantly shrewd things," Trilling couldn't help cringing at "the horror of the old manfine looking old manhaving to dance and clown to escape (also for his supper)."

It was largely in recoil against an audience that could do this to Fros"that deadly intimacy, that throwing away of dignity"that Trilling, in his famous tribute to Frost on his eighty-fifth birthday, in 1959, took pains to distinguish what he called "my Frost" from "the Frost I seem to perceive existing in the minds ofso many of his admirers." Trilling confessed that, as a man of the city, he had only recently overcome a "resistance" to Frost's country-based work. The Frost that Trilling had discovered "is not the Frost who reassures us by his affirmations of old virtues, simplicities, pieties, and ways of feeling: anything but." According to Trilling, "The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe." Trilling challenged the audience to read "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep," which he called "the most perfect poem of our time," and "see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived." He concluded: "I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet."

Trilling was not the first critic to suggest a darker side of Frost, but the occasion was a very public one, and Frost was visibly shaken when he tried to recite some poems after dinner. Trilling, who left the party early, wrote Frost to apologize if he had hurt his feelings. "Not distressed at all," Frost replied. "Just a little taken aback or thrown back on myself by being so closely examined so close by.... You made my birthday party a surprise party. I should like nothing better than to do a thing like that myselfto depart from the Rotarian norm in a Rotarian situation."In Trilling's performance and its aftermath, what Frost savored was not the revelation of his true dark self, but rather, as always in Frost, the clash of two sides, two sayings, in momentary equilibrium. "You weren't there to sing 'Happy Birthday, dear Robert,' and I don't mind being made controversial," he told Trilling. "No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down."

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Degas in New Orleans (Knopf) and The Great Wave (RandomHouse).

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