The Magazine

The Poet Outright

One key to understanding Robert Frost.

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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It would be a good parlor game to draw up a list illustrating the variety of great men New England has produced—starting with the archetypal New England poet Robert Frost, continuing through, say, Benjamin Franklin, the gunsmith Samuel Colt, the black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, the Watergate conspirator and prison missionary Charles Colson, and winding up with George W. Bush—and then challenge participants to name the person on that list who is not, in fact, a native New Englander. The answer is Robert Frost himself, who was born and spent his childhood in San Francisco. Only the death of his journalist father in 1885, when Frost was 11, brought the family back to Massachusetts. 

Robert Frost

Robert Frost in England, 1957

Getty Images

Frost became a New Englander of a recognizable kind, or of many kinds: He attended public high school in Lawrence, farmed in New Hampshire, read a lot of Emerson, and absorbed his culture more from London (where, at almost 40, he published his first volumes of verse) than from New York. But the New England of his poems is not a world of kicking leaves, eating lobster, and looking at mountains. It is the morbid, gothic, and ghastly world of those who, in a less delicate age, were called Swamp Yankees: the millworker who has his feet shattered by a piece of industrial machinery, the runaway wife watching the passersby at nightfall with paranoia, the married couple suffering a collective nervous breakdown over a dead child. 

We should distinguish between Frost’s most typical poems and his most celebrated ones. The typical poem is a blank-verse dialogue between people to whom something unspeakable has happened, with a vaguely repellent air lowering over them. But all of the most celebrated poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Mending Wall,” “Birches”—have some atypical element that renders them welcoming. Frost’s poems are no more what they seem than Frost himself. 

He reveled in this ambiguity. He praised poetry as “the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” Tim Kendall, an English literature professor at the University of Exeter, uses the word “ulteriority” to describe this aspect of Frost’s worldview. In The Art of Robert Frost, he illustrates it through a kind of low-tech version of an online university course. Kendall reprints several dozen poems in full, and follows each of them up with a lecture, which bundles in all kinds of explanatory “links.” 

First, Kendall ties Frost’s poems to his opinions, which are generally odd-sounding to contemporary ears because they are not the product of any kind of herdthink. These references do not resolve Frost’s double meanings, but they establish that some of those meanings are more “meant” than others. The political views hinted at in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” for instance, are made clearer by the impatient wish, confided to one of Frost’s notebooks, that we could “for Christ’s sake forget the poor some of the time.” 

Second, Kendall examines Frost’s method of composition. The closing lines of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” might be the best-known stanza of American poetry:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

It is interesting to know that Frost chose it because he thought his original ending: 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep

That bid me give the reins a shake.

was a dud. One can see why.

Third, and most helpfully, Kendall engages with a century’s worth of close readings of Frost’s poetry. From Amy Lowell to Randall Jarrell to Seamus Heaney, the most celebrated poets and critics have sung Frost’s praises and picked his nits. This has made him a profitable poet through whom to study the motives and meaning of American poetry in general. 

A lot of these examinations of Frost were carried out in the heat of one scholarly fad or another, hardened into conventional wisdom, and have never been reexamined. Such reexamination is the main service Kendall supplies. 

What kind of poet is Frost? An Englishman such as Kendall might be better equipped to answer that question than an American. If the genuinely American poetic tradition begins with Walt Whitman, then Frost was not really an American poet at all. Kendall contrasts the two poets’ attitudes towards traditional English versification: “Whitman presented his metrical experiments as part of a campaign to cut the shackles of that encumbrance. For Frost, originality stems not from rejection of the past but from deploying its resources in unforeseen ways.” 

This distinction is exactly right. Frost was not against modernizing, but he was unimpressed by the way Whitman had gone about it. He would wind the clock of the poetic tradition back to where it was on the eve of Whitman’s revolution. His own understanding of the English poetic tradition was shaped mostly by the English Romantics, and Kendall is excellent in drawing out their specific influences: John Keats on “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge on “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” and William Wordsworth absolutely everywhere. 

Wordsworth described his project as “fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” Frost aimed to take this experiment a step further, and Kendall makes much of his “sub-Wordsworthian diction.” Frost’s protagonists are even more “vibrantly unschooled” than his predecessor’s, and giving voice to them is eminently worthwhile. These are indeed an interesting class of people. They are precisely the people that industrialization (in Wordsworth’s and Frost’s age) and globalization (in ours) destroy, and they are never the most eloquent pleaders of their own cause.

In pleading it for them, one is always doomed to a degree of insincerity. Frost aims at this sub-Wordsworthian diction by twisting extremely simple words and phrases into new contexts, as if he were misusing them. But it is the kind of misuse that only a sophisticate would attempt. When the narrator in “Mending Wall” says, Spring is the mischief in me, it is because Frost likes the effect, not because any farmer would talk that way. Describing a visitor to a country nursery as a stranger to our yard, who looked the city (in “Christmas Trees”) saves a preposition but doesn’t exactly .  .  . um .  .  . “look” the country. Shifting an adverbial phrase to a nominal phrase in All out of doors looked darkly in at him (“An Old Man’s Winter Night”) is pleasingly strange. But it’s not as Wordsworthian as Frost might have thought. 

Like the Romantics, Frost was interested in describing man’s position not just in society but in nature. No modern poet was better at doing both at the same time. In his underrated poem “Reluctance,” he writes:

 

The leaves are all dead on the ground,

Save those that the oak is keeping

To ravel them one by one

And let them go scraping and creeping

Out over the crusted snow,

When others are sleeping. 

The most beautiful, descriptive word in this tour de force is not “keeping” or “ravel” but “others”—for the way it conveys that the writer is not sleeping. 

Kendall has a very 21st-century reading of the clash between man and nature. He roots for nature. Consider Frost’s beautiful description of an abandoned farmhouse in “Ghost House”:

 

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield

The woods come back to the mowing
     field;

The orchard tree has grown one copse

Of new wood and old where the wood-
     pecker chops;

The footpath down to the well is healed.

 

Any 20th-century reader would have viewed the spectacle of a house going “back to bush” with the same sense of civilizational tragedy that V. S. Naipaul conveys in A House for Mr Biswas. Kendall, though, sees the landscape as “cleansed of the human stain.” It is likely that most Frost readers until very recently have read “healed” in the paragraph above as a visual metaphor, not (as Kendall reads it) as a moral opinion. Where Frost is a naturalist, Kendall is an environmentalist.

We should not regret the bringing of new ideological preoccupations to Frost. Older critics, in the grip of their own ideologies, have certainly talked their share of nonsense about him. Two of these ideologies deserve particular attention.

First, Freudian psychology. From World War I, when Frost’s first books appeared, until sometime in the mid-1980s, a good deal of literary criticism consisted of uncovering references to phallic symbols. This was a kind of “ulteriority” that even the most dim-witted critic could practice, and once the university system expanded in the 1950s, there was a profusion of such critics. Like DDT, the poem with a lot of fronds and prongs and fountains and geysers was a convenient but ultimately damaging midcentury labor-saving innovation. Even today, university reading lists are garlanded with worthless poems—William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say,” for instance, or Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”—aimed at work-shy academics.

Frost was not above carting to town what the market requested, including such relatively strong poems as “After Apple-Picking” (My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still) and “Putting the Seed In,” which ends, The sturdy seedling with arched body comes / Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs. Kendall has an excellent, balanced way of arguing for the virtues of these poems, saying the latter is “not so much about sex as craftily aware of it, and to praise it on more explicit terms is to miss its strengths, just as to censor it would be to risk being condemned as dirty-minded.” Deprived of the sponsorship of Freud, though, “Meeting and Passing,” which circles around the image of Your parasol / Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust, is beginning to look like a terribly overrated poem.

A second ideology that has been overworked in readings of Frost is nationalism. In poems like “The Oven Bird” and “Hyla Brook” (which Kendall reproduces), and “Does Nobody At All Ever Feel This Way in the Least?” (which he does not), Frost spends a great deal of energy in distinguishing between what is “New World” and what is “Old World,” right down to species of birds and frogs. Critics are not wrong to see this as a genuine preoccupation of Frost’s. It’s just that it needn’t preoccupy us so much, now that the differences between the two cultures are evaporating and Old World culture is being contemned even in the Old World. 

If Frost has been faulted for one thing consistently over the decades, it is humorlessness. Kendall tries to defend him against the charge, but he has a weak case. There is self-consciousness, irony, and playfulness in Frost, but it is usually vain and mean, and not the same thing as humor. Randall Jarrell’s accurate assessment that “Birches,” another Frost favorite, was an overrated poem probably comes from the way Frost uses it to demean the whole game of writing a poem— 

 

But I was going to say when Truth
     broke in .  .  .

(Now am I free to be poetical?)

 

It’s the kind of poem people who are contemptuous of, or threatened by, poetry tend to like.

The best sign that the critics are right about Frost’s humorlessness is his Emersonian paean to going one’s own way, “The Road Not Taken.” Frost didn’t intend it to be an Emersonian paean. He meant to spoof the indecision of his great friend Edward Thomas. As Kendall puts it, this misunderstanding regarding what may be Frost’s most popular poem occasioned a crisis. “Its popularity,” he writes, “becomes an affront, attracting admiration for the very characteristics which the poet had tried to mock.” 

An atypical outburst of real humor comes in what is perhaps Frost’s greatest poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Kendall rightly gives it a very political reading. Even if Frost never makes the point specifically, the poem is an outright attack on that foundation of all progressivism—the division of labor. But one purely descriptive stanza has a glittering gaiety that would not be out of place in an Ira Gershwin lyric: 

The sun was warm but the wind was
     chill.

You know how it is with an April day

When the sun is out and the wind is still,

You’re one month on in the middle of
     May.

But if you so much as dare to speak, 

A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,

A wind comes off a frozen peak,

And you’re two months back in the middle
     of March.

The most convincing reading of any poem in this book is that of “Out, Out—,” which will not be described here since the poem is short and much of its power comes from the shock of its unfolding. Go read it now. Done? Good. It’s really something, isn’t it? Anyhow, certain critics, notably Seamus Heaney and Jay Parini, have seen a tacit sympathy on Frost’s part for the unfortunate characters in it. Kendall does not. He sees a sadistic manipulation of the reader. And he is right. “Where in the text can such sympathies be found?” he asks. “And on the basis of what supporting evidence might poet or poem be absolved from a Neronic pleasure in the suffering of others, or at least from indifference to it?”

On a few occasions, Kendall uses words such as “interrogate,” “performative,” and “encode,” but his prose is for the most part unmarred by the cant of 1990s theory. On many occasions, he breaks free of hidebound interpretations of Frost. Where he falls down is in being a bit too much of a musicologist. 

It is true that prosody (that is, rhyme and meter) can be a large part of what gives a poem the “ulteriority” that Kendall so prizes. Sound and sense can work together, or at cross-purposes. But Kendall often commits the fallacy that a poet’s musical effects are intentional-before-the-fact to the extent that they are describable-after-the-fact. This is a fallacy that poetry criticism shares with sports color commentary, where a bloop single is frequently described as a more skillful piece of hitting than a screaming line drive caught on the warning track. In his discussion of “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” Kendall notes the way that “the poem’s tetra-meter varies between the heavy stresses of the opening line (The hoúse had góne to bríng agaín) and the anapests of the third (now the chímney was áll of the hoúse that stoód) to establish poles of sonorous regularity.”

Whether these are poles of sonorous regularity, or sounds of regular polarity, or regulations of polar sonority, the effect is not repeated, and one has to assume that the lines just fell that way—luckily perhaps, although that third line does sound crowded and a little hurried. 

A preoccupation with prosody is rare in modern critics. Kendall’s attention to it is almost wholly admirable. But it leads him to importune the poems for meaning in inappropriate places. Frost’s magnificent “Desert Places” has been read for many years in the shadow of the interpretation that Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren gave in their university textbook, Understanding Poetry. The poem describes a journey in a snowstorm, and concludes:

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.

 

Brooks and Warren read the poem as a summons to religious faith. Maybe this is not an airtight argument, but it has a certain obvious logic. What is scary about empty spaces? By definition there cannot be anything in them—they’re empty. What is scary is the fact that they’re empty. Empty of what? If these spaces are out in the cosmos somewhere, then what they’re empty of is God. Kendall thinks this is mistaken:

To claim to hear “Desert Places” as an expression of the need for faith is to impose a sentimental reading unsupported by, and alien if not anathema to, this insidious music. Better to read it as an expression of the impossibility of faith—faith in God and, more desperately, faith in the self. The third line of each stanza remains unrhymed and unaccommodated, a dead line formally signaling a
failure to find harmony or consolatory design.

Even if you think Warren and Brooks read Frost with too much religious sentimentality, the absence of a rhyme is pretty weak evidence on which to build a metaphysical counter-argument. There are limits to what Kendall calls “ulteriority.” There may well be a “sound” argument that runs alongside the “sense” argument. But this does not mean you can refute the latter with the former. Otherwise, there is no arguing with the lout who thinks the girl who just said “Beat it, you creep!” has a crush on him because the words came so trippingly off her tongue. 

Maybe all the fun’s in how you say a thing, as Frost wrote in “Mending Wall.” But all the content is in what is actually said.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.