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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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

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.