Features June 1995
The other other Frost
On the moral confusion found in Robert Frost.
There have always been good reasons to ignore Robert Frost. The most traditional, the most metrically and morally conservative of modern poets, he was in a strict sense the last American poet of the nineteenth century (twelve at the death of Dickinson, he entered Dartmouth the year Whitman died). He could be hidebound and narrow and backward-looking, his Yankee landscape the agrarian fantasy of a Southern Democrat— not John Crowe Ransom or Allen Tate, but Andrew Jackson. The land he celebrated (not just the physical landscape but the moral landscape) was already gone, if it had ever existed. No American poet has created a more profound pastoral than Frost—profound because we’d like to believe it was a real place, not just the landscape of poetry.
Part of Frost’s despair was his knowledge that his world was gone (when the terms of Frost’s world were gone, the people remained). Many of his best poems take loss as their theme—sometimes as private and as crippling as anything in American literature. He was a ruined melancholic, and the dark gestures of his late Romanticism make him a moodier and far more difficult figure than Stevens, or Eliot, or Pound—compared to Frost they are shining untroubled aesthetes. They took America as a hypothesis; he took it for what it was—Frost told the stories that Whitman only suggested.
Frost was a poet of missed chance, of failed opportunity, of regret and cold disappointment.
Frost was a poet of missed chance, of failed opportunity, of regret and cold disappointment. Of all the moderns he is the one we have not come to terms with, yet part of the problem has always been Frost himself. He did so much to emphasize, to publicize and receive honorary Ph.D.’s for, his own worst instincts, to make himself the cracker-barrel Yankee sage people were glad to take him for, a kind of Grandma Moses on the deck of the Pequod, that we shouldn’t be surprised if now it is almost impossible to take him for anything else. More than forty years ago Randall Jarrell wrote two marvelous essays of rehabilitation, “The Other Frost” and “To the Laodiceans,” arguing for the gloomy, hard, human Frost (“human” was a favorite Jarrell word), the Frost of “The Witch of Coös,” “Provide, Provide,” and “Home Burial.” Most of the poems Jarrell favored are now part of our Frost—but instead we have two Frosts, a farmer schizophrenic, half Vermont maple-syrup and half raw granite, an old man of the mountains people can take home to dinner.
Each of these Frosts serves the idiom of our beliefs—we need the one to believe that poetry is good, the other to believe that poetry is true. Each version is a fact, but each is also a bias confirmed by the partiality of a reading. Frost was at times a bad philosopher, a man who wore his morals on his sleeve, and as he grew older he convinced himself he was a philosophe of masques and fables—he almost became a fable himself (or an apophthegm dreaming it was a fable). For sententious observation, homespun morals, complacent sentiment, and barn-idle philosophizing (the kind a cat does, tangled in a ball of yarn), you can’t go much further than the later Frost. By the time John F. Kennedy asked him to read at the 1961 Inaugural, Frost was more a monument than half the equestrian statues in Washington—a brass-necked cold calculation, standing proudly on all fours. Has any major poet written a worse poem about America than “The Gift Outright”? It contains every part of Frost’s terrible sentiment for the Land, America, the Past, for Ourselves, for the general myth that replaces the mangled event—even the best line, “To the land vaguely realizing westward,” drowns in the horror of all that is left unsaid.
When “Home Burial” and “The Death of the Hired Man” can sit comfortably in high-school anthologies, no longer cruel rural dramas but complacent period pieces, perhaps it is time for a different Frost, one not so easily lost to high-mindedness. There is need for a Frost less dramatic and more demonic, a Frost of impermanent mood, whose own moods seemed a confusion to him (hence his reliance on, his attraction to, codes of behavior, morals, blind jurisprudence, the otherworldly forces that might set the world in order, or strip it to raw design).
Jarrell wanted people to read Frost, to suffer from his range and his terrors, and what is permanent in Frost now includes many of the poems Jarrell salvaged from neglect: “The Witch of Coös,” “Neither out Far Nor in Deep,” “Home Burial,” “Acquainted with the Night,” “Design,” “Provide, Provide,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” and “Desert Places.” (Even “After Apple-Picking” and “The Gift Outright,” poems I can’t imagine anyone liking. I may as well admit that my taste is different from Jarrell’s—I don’t like “Directive,” I don’t think “Provide, Provide” an “immortal masterpiece,” though I like it well enough, and I despise “The Gift Outright.” Every reader should have a list of the Frost poems he can’t abide.)
If Jarrell’s Frost was the Frost of interior and melancholy, of moral observation and metallic cunning, he was also the Frost whose monologues and scenes tended toward sentiment (a poet a lot like himself, in other words). I would like to propose what might seem impossible after Jarrell, a list of a dozen or so of Frost’s best poems rarely seen in anthologies and likely to be new to most readers. Here is the list: “The Code,” “A Hundred Collars,” “The Bearer of Evil Tidings,” “Snow,” “Place for a Third,” “The Exposed Nest,” “The Fear,” “Spring Pools,” “The Thatch,” “Sand Dunes,” “The Strong Are Saying Nothing,” “The Draft Horse,” “The Silken Tent,” and “Willful Homing.” This is a list of moral ambiguity and suspended grief, of stark horror and shy confusion—if Frost was a confusion to himself, we should, part of the time, be as confused and surprised by the Frost we read.
“The Code” starts with three men haying a field under an advancing thundercloud:
There were three in the meadow by the brook
Gathering up windrows, piling cocks of hay,
With an eye always lifted toward the west
Where an irregular sun-bordered cloud
Darkly advanced with a perpetual dagger
Flickering across its bosom. Suddenly
One helper, thrusting pitchfork in the ground,
Marched himself off the field and home. One stayed.
The town-bred farmer failed to understand.
The farmhand’s action is as abrupt as a scrawl of lightning, and the rest of the poem sets out to explain it. Silence has the force of speech in Frost, but this is one of the few places where silence is interpreted. The opening lines might seem just an excuse for a story, the story the remaining farmhand goes on to tell about another haying, another farmer who offended the code—in a more straightforward mood (even a rambling storyteller like Frost generally got on with things) the prologue could have been dispensed with. But the action is not just about the code, it is in code—a tale is required to explain the tale. The poem’s lovely, lopsided organization is rougher and more accidental than in Frost’s conservative dramas—the reader almost requires doubt about the form, as an imitative action. Only gradually is it clear that the second tale is in code as well—that the second farmhand is delivering a genial threat.
“But the old fool seizes his fork in both hands,
And looking up bewhiskered out of the pit,
Shouts like an army captain, ‘Let her come!’
Thinks I, D’ye mean it? ‘What was that yousaid?’
I asked out loud, so’s there’d be no mistake,
‘Did you say, “Let her come”?’ ‘Yes, let her come.’
He said it over, but he said it softer.
Never you say a thing like that to a man,
Not if he values what he is. God, I’d as soon
Murdered him as left out his middle name.
I’d built the load and knew right where to find it.
Two or three forkfuls I picked lightly round for
Like meditating, and then I just dug in
And dumped the rackful on him in ten lots.
I looked over the side once in the dust
And caught sight of him treading-water-like,
Keeping his head above. ‘Damn ye,’ I says,
‘That gets ye!’ He squeaked like a squeezed rat.
That was the last I saw or heard of him.
I cleaned the rack and drove out to cool off.”
“I went about to kill him fair enough,” the hand says later—he can afford to be so casual (death is often casual in Frost) because he knows his actions were understood, part of the code, never written down, by which men get along with one another. The farmer didn’t die, but he earned his life at the cost of a lesson. The force of the poem is in the implicating conduct of different stories: the squall of violence when the farmhand throws down his pitchfork, the patient explanation of the second farmhand (a code of courtesy here), the town-bred farmer’s incomplete understanding of what he’s been told, the silent courtesy of the threat which the remaining farmhand delivers. The farmer has been warned—that is part of the code, too. Frost lets each of these stories rustle over the others (he knows something about literary codes as well); but the poem would never be effective without his warm feeling for the way men work, their stiff prides and dishonors, the lies they tell themselves.
The texture of those prides is in the texture of the details, the force that starts as invention and ends as a kind of second life: that “bewhiskered” farmer, about to be whiskered in hay; the ominous way the farmer “said it over, but he said it softer”; the almost meditative construction (more codes), “I’d as soon/ Murdered him as left out his middle name”; the further meditative gesture of the farmhand picking “lightly round” the hay (how lovely to describe it as a kind of meditation); and that terrible sound, that terrible image, of the farmer squeaking “like a squeezed rat” (there is danger throughout—recall that “perpetual dagger” in the storm cloud). Running through the poem, as in the best of Frost, is the haunted echo of men’s speech. Frost’s pentameter is always too dependent on monosyllables, like the speech of most men, and here and there the lines are posed or stilted; but most of a century later these sound like men talking, not like men writing.
“AHundred Collars” starts in a similar offhand way—a man misses a train, is forced to lodge at a local hotel, but the hotel is full. He doesn’t want to share a room—he doesn’t want to, and Frost conveys with typical economy the apprehension that rises in such a man on such a night. He’d like to know who’s in the room already:
“Who is it?”
“So I should hope. What kind of man?”
“I know him: he’s all right. A man’s a man.
Separate beds, of course, you understand.”
The night clerk blinked his eyes and dared him on.
“Who’s that man sleeping in the office chair?
Has he had the refusal of my chance?”
“He was afraid of being robbed or murdered.
What do you say?”
“I’ll have to have a bed.”
His resistance collapses, but not before he endures the delicious malice of the night clerk (the whole point of “A man’s a man” is that it isn’t true—a man’s a man until he’s a murderer). It’s an old traveler’s fear. Frost has to specify the separate beds—that should remind us not only of the close quarters earlier travelers had to tolerate, but of the scene in Chapter 3 of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael has to share a bed with Queequeg at the Spouter-Inn (the landlord there is more considerate—when Ishmael is reluctant, he starts to plane down a rough bench). It’s one of the most gripping scenes in American fiction—the exhausted young man, reconciled to a bed with the strange harpooner (who’s off somewhere selling a shrunken head); the young man finally in bed in the freezing room, on a mattress that seems “stuffed with corn-cobs or broken crockery”; Ishmael awoken by the entry of Queequeg (tattooed like a checkerboard, still holding the unsold head), who gets into bed smoking his tomahawk and then wildly threatens the young man he finds there. When Ishmael wakes the next morning, Queequeg’s arm is thrown over him “in the most loving and affectionate manner.”
Melville’s scene turns maternal and comic there, and the trust between Ishmael and Queequeg is sealed by their night together. Frost has only a scholar and a subscriptions agent to work with, and he toys longer with the dread. The agent is named Lafe.
The Doctor looked at Lafe and looked away.
A man? A brute. Naked above the waist,
He sat there creased and shining in the light,
Fumbling the buttons in a well-starched shirt.
“I’m moving into a size-larger shirt.
I’ve felt mean lately; mean’s no name for it.
I just found what the matter was tonight:
I’ve been a-choking like a nursery tree
When it outgrows the wire band of its name tag.
I blamed it on the hot spell we’ve been having.
’Twas nothing but my foolish hanging back,
Not liking to own up I’d grown a size.
Number eighteen this is. What size do you wear?”
The Doctor caught his throat convulsively.
Every gesture is alive with threat—the half-naked man talks of being “mean lately,” talks of choking (a scholar the least sensitive to language would flinch at the latent violence). We’re delighted with the unease which Frost so easily manufactures—but we’re uneasy too. Frost sets the reader even with the characters—we’re given no more information than the Doctor, and we must feel our way as clumsily. Lafe wants to know his collar size because . . . because he wants to give the Doctor a hundred old collars. But we’re frightened to take anything from those we fear—what would be generosity seems only a further threat, perhaps even a trick. Frost has taken his character into the worst of fear—and then Lafe offers to take off the Doctor’s shoes! Each clumsy action allows a new misinterpretation. The Doctor’s poised to run away—but Lafe’s only worried about the landlord’s sheets. (Who but Frost, his eye on the meanness and misgivings, would pause for the beautiful line where Lafe, though half-naked, seems to be his shirt, all “creased and shining”?)
Eventually they find themselves in hobbled conversation, which leads to one of Frost’s typical passages of observation, plain and circumstantial, but with the consuming conscience of character:
“It’s business, but I can’t say it’s not fun.
What I like best’s the lay of different farms,
Coming out on them from a stretch of woods,
Or over a hill or round a sudden corner.
I like to find folks getting out in spring,
Raking the dooryard, working near the house.
Later they get out further in the fields.
Everything’s shut sometimes except the barn;
The family’s all away in some back meadow.
There’s a hay load a-coming—when it comes.
And later still they all get driven in:
The fields are stripped to lawn, the garden patches
Stripped to bare ground, the maple trees
To whips and poles. There’s nobody about.
The chimney, though, keeps up a good brisk smoking.
And I lie back and ride.”
How calmly and warmly and suggestively this is rendered, like harvest scenes from a medieval calendar—or like Wordsworth’s first view of London in The Prelude. There’s that beautiful surveyor’s phrase, “the lay of different farms”; the simplicity of feeling in “I like to find folks getting out in spring”; the long patience of “There’s a hay load a-coming—when it comes,” even if we now think “a-coming” a bit corny (corny, but country); the visual fable of “The fields are stripped to lawn”; and then Brueghel’s barren landscape of winter. It’s not important to the poem—it’s just there, like the landscape, the way that the characters are just there, accidentally thrown together and forced to make something like peace. So many of Frost’s effects are almost negligent, as if they just happened. The scholar remains wary even at the last—that is his character. All his knowledge is no use in judging men—even when Frost disliked men like the Doctor, it was with fondness and understanding. That was what they were—and Frost’s poetry is about the way men are. It would take so little for the Doctor just to accept the collars, yet all he can say is, “But really I—I have so many collars.” (This is one of many times that Frost’s meter allows a trembling hesitation of emphasis.) “There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people,” says Lafe.
Frost knew when to let a poem go—in his best poems the ending comes as a slight shock, as if the poem couldn’t be over (in his worst the reader feels the poem shouldn’t have begun). The actions seem to move beyond the end of the lines—this is an old trick in fiction, but how many poets have used it well? Fiction wouldn’t have served Frost’s temper (if he’d been a novelist he might have written something awfully like Ethan Frome), but when we place him it must be alongside those moody gothics Hawthorne and Melville, the New England geniuses of guilt and redemption, and failures to redeem. Something of the violent Fate that moves their fiction moves through his verse, but it is a Fate blinder and more callous. Here is “The Draft Horse”:
With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,
We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.
This is the Frost who makes readers uncomfortable. We ought to be able to call it an allegory—but no allegory suggests itself (or, rather, the allegories are too simple for the savagery). The murder of the horse is so abrupt, so unforeseen, that the murderer seems more than just part of that unknowable agency that makes life harder (no memory “keeps the end from being hard,” Frost wrote in “Provide, Provide”). The couple, with their faulty lantern and fragile buggy, with the wrong horse, are destined for trouble—and how Frost loved those scary old woods. (One critic asked—this is the sort of question critics should ask—why the couple had hitched a draft horse to a buggy. The answer should have been obvious—because they had to.) Frost knew more about depravity than any American writer after Melville and before Faulkner—and he had a cellar knowledge of our irrational fears (Frost tells us the man stabbed the horse deliberately; but first, in the way he grips the horse’s head, Frost shows us deliberation). This is the Frost people don’t want to care for, and yet look how compellingly the poem ends. The couple don’t curse their fate; they’re so unquestioning they seem slightly stupid. Yet isn’t this a philosophy, a kind of clear religion, not “to ascribe/ Any more than we had to to hate”? As readers we know we wouldn’t act this way, and we’re not finally sure that we should act this way—but we’re not sure we shouldn’t, either. That makes Frost strange, and us, in our settled, suspicious natures, ill at ease.
Frost’s simplicity is deceptive, because it deepens so pitilessly into complication. When we say a man is complex, we mean we’re not sure of his responses; and in Frost we’re often measured by the way we read. Consider “Sand Dunes,” a poem that starts so plainly it hardly starts at all:
Sea waves are green and wet,
But up from where they die
Rise others vaster yet,
And those are brown and dry.
They are the sea made land
To come at the fisher town
And bury in solid sand
The men she could not drown.
She may know cove and cape,
But she does not know mankind
If by any change of shape
She hopes to cut off mind.
Men left her a ship to sink:
They can leave her a hut as well;
And be but more free to think
For the one more cast-off shell.
Without the title, the first stanza might be opaque; but the shore is where waves die, and the dunes rise from the tide-line. “They are the sea made land”—this might be mere ingenuity, a metaphor of sand, but Frost’s idea is more peculiar: the dunes are the macabre way the sea will conquer the fishermen it hasn’t been able to drown. (Dunes could bury a village—I saw them bury a cemetery once.) Even here, when Death and Fate and the Sea all seem inexorable, the poem hasn’t finished. The sea isn’t clever enough! If Frost were a worse poet, he’d linger here, and tell us that men can abandon a philosophy or an idea—but he doesn’t. His men are like hermit crabs—he says they’ll be freer to think, but we remember that for hermit crabs life is just one abandoned shell after another.
No one thinks that the sea really has designs on the land—or no one would think it, if Frost hadn’t said so.
“Sand Dunes” is a trial piece for a poem more poignant and more Stygian, “Neither out Far Nor in Deep”—think of the syntactic organization of the last stanzas. It shows how good Frost can be when he isn’t great, and how disturbing and not quite settled even his settled endings are. Frost is always catching his readers out—he is a poet disastrous to underestimate (even in his late poems there are words, lines, sometimes a stanza or two, that have the old rough homemade truth in them).
No one thinks that the sea really has designs on the land—or no one would think it, if Frost hadn’t said so. His fantasies have a primitive agency, a primitive terror—and don’t men act at times as if they believed what Frost is only whimsical about? His poems require not that we believe them, but that we know we could believe them if we were different—that is, if we were Frost. This slight offness or strangeness lets his readers take as pleasant fictions what would otherwise be unpleasant truths, though that doesn’t make the truths less unpleasant. “The Bearer of Evil Tidings” might have been written by Kipling—it is no more than a fantasy about a cliché:
The bearer of evil tidings,
When he was halfway there,
Remembered that evil tidings
Were a dangerous thing to bear.
So when he came to the parting
Where one road led to the throne
And one went off to the mountains
And into the wild unknown,
He took the one to the mountains.
He ran through the Vale of Cashmere,
He ran through the rhododendrons
Till he came to the land of Pamir.
This seems to be a poem about cowardice; but by one of those reversals that drive Frost’s poems into the blackness of our psychologies, it is really about prudence.
She taught him her tribe’s religion:
How, ages and ages since,
A princess en route from China
To marry a Persian prince
Had been found with child; and her army
Had come to a troubled halt.
And though a god was the father
And nobody else at fault,
It had seemed discreet to remain there
And neither go on nor back.
So they stayed and declared a village
There in the land of the Yak.
Frost is good about religion—his distrust is wolfish and cagy. The Christian religion has to say that its god was the father of Jesus—otherwise there would be no religion. The Oriental army advances under a similar suspension of disbelief; but acts in just that bothersome human way Frost loves, accepting enough to believe, doubting enough not to go on or back. (As readers we know that Frost is still thinking Christian thoughts.)
And that was why there were people
On one Himalayan shelf;
And the bearer of evil tidings
Decided to stay there himself.
At least he had this in common
With the race he chose to adopt:
They had both of them had their reasons
For stopping where they had stopped.
As for his evil tidings,
Why hurry to tell Belshazzar
What soon enough he would know?
Few things escape Frost’s brutal wryness here (though look at how delicately he suggests that other shelves have other stories). They had both of them had their reasons—this doesn’t mean that the reasons are good or honorable. The reasons for sacrifice (honor, integrity, loyalty to country or king) are never argued here—Frost knows all about them already. It is the small salvation of the slightly disreputable case that interests him. After all, the news would have had no effect on the outcome—Belshazzar was already overthrown. The poem might have stopped just before the last, throwaway stanza; but then it wouldn’t have drifted beyond our expectations. A reader almost forgets that those evil tidings had somewhere to get to. That is the cold form of Frost’s genius, and genius allows no pity for Belshazzar.
Frost’s poems often find something human but distasteful in knowledge and belief—not just religion’s set beliefs, but the beliefs men have to accept to get from one day to another. He recognizes that belief can be a weakness, that strength often requires a restraint. “The Strong Are Saying Nothing” ends there, but it starts in a casual, causal, haphazard way.
The soil now gets a rumpling soft and damp,
And small regard to the future of any weed.
The final flat of the hoe’s approval stamp
Is reserved for the bed of a few selected seed.
There is seldom more than a man to a harrowed piece.
Men work alone, their lots plowed far apart,
One stringing a chain of seed in an open crease,
And another stumbling after a halting cart.
To the fresh and black of the squares of early mold
The leafless bloom of a plum is fresh and white;
Though there’s more than a doubt if the weather is not too cold
For the bees to come and serve its beauty aright.
Wind goes from farm to farm in wave on wave,
But carries no cry of what is hoped to be.
There may be little or much beyond the grave,
But the strong are saying nothing until they see.
How lovely that “rumpling” in the first line is, and how ambiguous that “harrowed” later on. There is much in the loneliness of the way these men work, in that farmer “stumbling after a halting cart.” The brilliance of Frost’s poems is often in these acts of notice, in the contrast between the harrowed soil (retaining the decay in that other sense of “mold”) and the white plum blossoms. Frost isn’t a poet for mere beauty. The beauty of the plum tree comes ripe with disaster: if the weather is too cold for the bees, the beauty will not be served with plums. It’s as if to say, “Beauty is all very well, in its place, but what’s really important is the homely old plum.” This isn’t the point of the poem, but it leads to the point by a roundabout way. Farming is the faith and hope of seeds, the religion of what comes after—suddenly we’re in a poem about death. Frost’s farmers don’t trust anything they can’t see. It might be tempting to predict a crop, and for many men it’s tempting to predict what lies beyond the grave. It takes a kind of strength, Frost is saying, to resist from hope—those harrowed fields are bleak and biblical.
Frost could barely think of beauty without thinking of death. At times it made him arch and melodramatic, those two sins of Romantic character (there’s a self-congratulatory cruelty to the end of the mawkish “Out, Out—”—the boy probably died from bad doctoring and an overdose of ether); but usually he just suffered his understandings, half sad and half stoic. He knew how much death cost the people who survived, how much even the prospect of death cost them. The odd little poem “Not to Keep” is about a wounded soldier, sent home to his wife. She thinks that they’ve escaped, that the war is over for them; but she cannot see his wound. Finally she has to ask, and he has to tell her—the wound is severe enough to send him home, but not to keep him home. He has to go back to war.
Frost is a master of what people have to endure for one another. The visual arts have never been much good at showing what people say without saying, but in “Not to Keep” it is all there in a line or two. (The movies cheat and use music, and perhaps you could say that de la Tour cheated with light and with significant glances.) It’s easy to forget how much Frost does not say in his poems, how much power lies in his reticence.
Frost was unashamed of writing as a man (not for other men, but about other men), in a way that would almost be impossible now. The women in Frost’s poetry usually stand apart from the action, like a Greek chorus—and yet we’ve had few poets who understood women better. How many wonderful women he created as characters: the wife in “The Death of the Hired Man” and the wife in “Home Burial,” the Witch of Coös and the Pauper Witch of Grafton, the wife in “The Fear” and the depressed wife in “A Servant to Servants,” the mother in “The Housekeeper,” the wife of “In the Home Stretch.” There’s a fine anthology to be made merely from Frost’s women, merely from Frost’s wives (Frost must have been a bit afraid of women—in the dialogues, the women usually come off better than the men). Frost wasn’t ashamed of being a man, and that gave him an understanding of women—not the understanding, but an understanding that can only come from liking what women are. It shows in poems like “The Silken Tent.”
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
The language here (that “sunny summer breeze,” that “gently sways at ease”) doesn’t have the considered simplicity of the best of Frost—Frost hovered around clichés so often that sometimes he just lit on them. From the middle of the poem onward, however, this metaphysical conceit (how rarely that plain old lover-of-metaphysics Robert Frost chose to be metaphysical) gains from the force of its slightly self-conscious, off-the-shelf poetic language; and the concentration of the final three lines can scarcely be equalled. Reading those lines, the reader finds something pulling taut in him, too. The awkwardness is an homage to feeling, as it was in Hardy.
This doesn’t mean that Frost understood all women, or even specific women. Many of his best poems recognize the mystery between women and men—the mystery that is misunderstanding. The insignificant incident of “The Exposed Nest” starts in that kind of misunderstanding:
You were forever finding some new play.
So when I saw you down on hands and knees
In the meadow, busy with the new-cut hay,
Trying, I thought, to set it up on end,
I went to show you how to make it stay,
If that was your idea, against the breeze,
And, if you asked me, even help pretend
To make it root again and grow afresh.
But ’twas no make-believe with you today,
Nor was the grass itself your real concern,
Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clover.
’Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter bar had just gone champing over. . . .
The woman wants to make it right, somehow (how many opportunities this poem gives to modern critics, those crippled descendants of Freud). Few passages in Frost are as rich with the inevitability of death as “your hand full of wilted fern,/ Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clover.” The couple are trying to do the impossible, to restore the entire field so the mother bird won’t abandon the nest. The field has a mortal beauty, like a Van Gogh; but Frost isn’t interested in that. He sees “The way the nest-full every time we stirred/ Stood up to us as to a mother-bird/ Whose coming home has been too long deferred.” There isn’t much time for these nestlings—and the couple don’t know if their meddling will make things worse. They work on anyway.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven’t any memory—have you?—
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings.
The poem abandons the nestlings, as the couple did, when everything that could be done had been done—even if they’d done the wrong thing. Without quite saying so (Frost’s poems are expert in not quite saying so), the poem has sketched the boundary of this couple’s lives: the way the man assumes the woman is playing; the way he wants to show her how to do what she’s doing (just like a man, we might think now); the way the end acknowledges not just that there are other matters, but that some matters must be abandoned. That some things need to be left alone insinuates darkly into these lives—there is a risk to what kindness can do, a risk and a limit. But sometimes you have to be kind anyway.
The men and women in Frost often stare bleakly past each other. It’s not that they have too little to say, but that they have too much. Those birds, or birds very much like them, disturb the complacent rage of the speaker in “The Thatch.” He has stormed out of his thatched cottage, into the winter rain, and won’t come back until his wife puts out the bedroom light. She won’t put out the light until he comes in. Their cast-iron mulishness might last forever—it has the inevitability of myth (Frost is good about the mean things that make us mulish—however leathery the moral quality in his souls, he sees their weakness, too). But . . .
as I passed along the eaves,
So low I brushed the straw with my sleeves,
I flushed birds out of hole after hole,
Into the darkness. It grieved my soul,
It started a grief within a grief,
To think their case was beyond relief—
They could not go flying about in search
Of their nest again, nor find a perch.
They must brood where they fell in mulch and mire,
Trusting feathers and inward fire
Till daylight made it safe for a flyer.
My greater grief was by so much reduced
As I thought of them without nest or roost.
That was how that grief started to melt.
He didn’t mean to bother those birds, didn’t mean to add their hardship to his; but that’s the way anger is (it’s no use arguing with Frost that anger isn’t always this way). The innocent suffer, sometimes without knowing the cause of suffering. The man can do nothing to repair the injury, and there’s a naked recognition in that remarkable line, “It started a grief within a grief” (a line that echoes in the scarring ambiguity of “brood”). Frost tended to jingle in couplets (his ear grew unsure when his rhymes were too close together), but here the jingling underlines the absurdity of a man standing out in the rain to prove a point. And some of those rhymes are canny—that hollow, eaten-out “soul” is rhymed with “hole”; the “grief” is intimately bound, not with “relief,” but with “beyond relief.”
Those tangles of grief and regret between men and women, regret and sometimes the kindness of regret, radiate in odd directions. In “Place for a Third” (what an awful maker of titles Frost was—sometimes they’re slapped on like gummed labels), a man wants to respect his wife’s dying wishes. She’s had three husbands, he’s had three wives; and she doesn’t want to lie with the other women.
One man’s three women in a burial row
Somehow made her impatient with the man.
And so she said to Laban, “You have done
A good deal right; don’t do the last thing wrong.
Don’t make me lie with those two other women.”
Laban said, No, he would not make her lie
With anyone but that she had a mind to,
If that was how she felt, of course, he said.
She went her way. But Laban having caught
This glimpse of lingering person in Eliza,
And anxious to make all he could of it
With something he remembered in himself,
Tried to think how he could exceed his promise,
And give good measure to the dead, though thankless.
It’s a surprise to him, “This glimpse of lingering person” (what a judicious, delighting phrase); but he wants to give to the dead just measure, or measure more than just. He thinks of buying her a plot of her own:
He’d sell a yoke of steers to pay for it.
And weren’t there special cemetery flowers,
That, once grief sets to growing, grief may rest;
The flowers will go on with grief awhile,
And no one seem neglecting or neglected?
A prudent grief will not despise such aids.
This is typical of Frost. Laban will grieve, but he’ll be practical, too. How can we not admire a character whose complications come so coiled in pathos, whose trivial economies lie next to absurd generosities? (That yoke of steers is a sacrifice—they had to be trained to the yoke.) He thinks of a better way of satisfying his duty, and his love: he’ll bury her next to the boy she first loved, who lived in a neighboring town. He finds the grave (it’s marked John, Beloved Husband, but we’re never told where John’s wife lies—that may be another story), and Laban goes to plead his case before the dead man’s sister.
.in +1.25 in
The sister’s face
.in -1.25 in
Fell all in wrinkles of responsibility.
She wanted to do right. She’d have to think.
Laban was old and poor, yet seemed to care;
And she was old and poor—but she cared, too.
They sat. She cast one dull, old look at him,
Then turned him out to go on other errands
She said he might attend to in the village,
While she made up her mind how much she cared—
And how much Laban cared—and why he< cared.
(She made shrewd eyes to see where he came in.)
Here the run of shortened sentences follows the short reversals of a mind at odds. She’s shrewd, but not heartless. Finally she can’t consent; and she tells Laban through a closed screen door (how good Frost was at paltry details). The reason’s so funny it’s almost sad: “‘There wouldn’t be no sense./ Eliza’s had too many other men.’” The poem might have ended there, but it can’t—it would be a bad joke. Laban goes back to his first plan, to buy Eliza her own plot: it “gives him for himself a choice of lots/ When his time comes to die and settle down.” That “settle down” is terrifying. Frost’s disquiet about the afterlife usually revealed a disquiet about our arrangements in this one; and death here is “settling down” in a way we usually don’t like to think of (earlier, death is made almost willful—“She went her way”). We understand too little of people if we don’t appreciate how they can be canny and caring at the same time—and the abyss that remains between them.
Here the run of shortened sentences follows the short reversals of a mind at odds. She’s shrewd, but not heartless.
Frost’s poetry is one long exploitation of a fairly limited notion about character, and yet to the limitations what a rare and brush-fine rendering he brings. There is more truth in Frost’s simplicities, his love of morals and homilies and examples, than in all the dull rattle of autobiography on which our poetry now subsists (This was my life, our poems protest, as if having a life were the same as having art). How interested Frost seems in other people—and yet how interesting that makes him seem. The problem is not that Frost is too simple for us; it’s that we are too simple for him.
“Snow” is another of Frost’s wretched claustrophobic dramas. There’s a blizzard. The Coles have been wakened by a visitor, a preacher trying to get home after a prayer meeting. He’s named Meserve, one of those cross-grained back-country names, and he’s a preacher in some back-country Christian sect. He calls his wife to tell her he’s still on the way. The couple want him to stay the night, but they can’t make themselves make him stay; and he’s stubborn enough to go on (stubborn enough to have gone to town to preach on such a night). Much of the poem consists of the couple squabbling, in a half-fond, half-irritated marital way—the poem is almost as long as “The Waste Land.” Meserve goes out to the barn to check his horses, and when he comes back they plead with him to stay.
Meserve seemed to heed nothing but the lamp
Or something not far from it on the table.
By straightening out and lifting a forefinger,
He pointed with his hand from where it lay
Like a white crumpled spider on his knee:
“That leaf there in your open book! It moved
Just then, I thought. It’s stood erect like that,
There on the table, ever since I came,
Trying to turn itself backward or forward,
I’ve had my eye on it to make out which:
If forward, then it’s with a friend’s impatience—
You see I know—to get you on to things
It wants to see how you will take; if backward,
It’s from regret for something you have passed
And failed to see the good of. Never mind,
Things must expect to come in front of us
A many times—I don’t say just how many—
That varies with the things—before we see them.
One of the lies would make it out that nothing
Ever presents itself before us twice.
Where would we be at last if that were so?
Our very life depends on everything’s
Recurring till we answer from within.
The symbol is too available here—the book is no doubt the Bible. (What other book, likely to lie open in a farmhouse, has pages so thin they might stir in the lightest breeze —and what else does Meserve “heed”? And yet why doesn’t he name it?) The preacher’s hesitation makes the moment less certain; he can’t say when we’ll see the way things are, and there’s more than a shiver of apocalypse in his speech—a preacher who thinks about what comes again (which our lives depend on, when we will “answer from within”) is half thinking of the Second Coming. The couple don’t much like Meserve, and they’re angry with him because they’re afraid for him (if he dies in the blizzard, they’ll feel responsible). There’s something else, something not quite said in the poem—the wife and Meserve were apparently friendly as children. The couple go back and forth with him, and she makes one last attempt:
“But why, when no one wants you to, go on?
Your wife—she doesn’t want you to. We don’t,
And you yourself don’t want to. Who else is there?”
“Save us from being cornered by a woman.
Well, there’s—” She told Fred afterward that in
The pause right there, she thought the dreaded word
Was coming, “God.” But no, he only said,
“Well, there’s—the storm. That says I must go on.
That wants me as a war might if it came.
Ask any man.”
How crafty Frost is. He wants Meserve to surprise us, but it’s more of a surprise if we know the expected answer—making sure causes a delay, and delay heightens the expectation.
Meserve goes off into the blizzard. “It’s quiet as an empty church without him,” the husband says. He means to say only that the storm of Meserve’s presence having passed, they are left in a strange silence. But Meserve is a preacher, and they are left in the church a preacher has abandoned. They are still inside a church—the church of their wintry home, their narrow tight religion of each other. And yet that church feels forsaken—as if the god (the word Meserve hasn’t said) has passed out of it, too. We know that when a church is empty, the god’s still there; and yet an empty church can feel less than spiritual, just an empty warehouse. What devastating resonances this simple line lets loose, and how long it takes to explain poems that so simply explain themselves.
Hours later Meserve’s wife calls—he still hasn’t returned. The couple descend to new guilt; they admire and despise Meserve for being what he is. They try to ring her back, but she’s left the phone off the hook. (This is an early village party-line system—her number’s 21, just two digits, and when her phone’s off the hook they can hear the sounds in her house without ringing her.) Then Meserve calls—he’s come home. The couple should be relieved, but they’re not, quite. A tremor has gone through their lives. Perhaps they’ll just forget it. The nearness of death; the icy white desolation of the night (Meserve remembers something he heard a boy say: “You can’t get too much winter in the winter”); the runty and nearly repulsive Meserve, down to the lovely, horrible description of his hand, “Like a white crumpled spider”—it’s a winter nightmare, all below-freezing anxiety. Frost knows not to let the couple subside into forgiveness, or rise to pure irritation. Frost used dialogue as well as Eliot or Joyce—he may be nineteenth-century in his philosophy (early Frost sounds as if it were written before Darwin), but he’s modern in his voices. Eliot caught something of the Twenties when his characters spoke, but Frost’s characters are almost our contemporaries.
I don’t have space—though I wish I had space—to discuss that wintry companion piece, “Willful Homing”; or that mysterious poem “The Fear” (with that wonderful line, “I saw it just as plain as a white plate”); or the ending of “A Brook in the City,” where the hidden won’t stay hidden (Freud might have written such a poem, if he hadn’t been a poem). Let me end, since I’ve lingered so long in the bleaker regions of Frost, with something almost springlike, “Spring Pools”:
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.
The pools reflect the whole sky because the forest leaves haven’t come on (the “defect” would be the thin high branches). Their nearly faultless reflections, like barely scratched mirrors, must give way to a darker nature. The darkness in the forest means only the leaves; but we know what Frost really means. He was such a plain poet in his words (he so rarely tried for those “poetic” effects of sound and usage which most poets live on like the air—a plant that does that is an epiphyte), but such a devious man in his lines. This doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be ornamental when he chose—there’s that beautiful chiasmus here, “These flowery waters and these watery flowers,” and think of the ornate line from “The Black Cottage,” “A buttoned haircloth lounge spread scrolling arms.” But also think how later in that poem the minister rises briefly into “poetry,” and then stops, as if embarrassed. Few poets have ever caught such power in plain speech; Frost’s lines bear their ideas without the distraction of ornament, or with the least ornament necessary for the democracy of argument (how tangled the notions in the simple “pent-up” buds here—they’re all raw DNA, with empires to build).
The complications are in the shrewdness of the said. How could the summer woods have that kind of fairy-tale darkness?
The complications are in the shrewdness of the said. How could the summer woods have that kind of fairy-tale darkness? There is no evil, and yet the loss of the pools is a minor kind of evil, just because it is a loss. “Let them think twice,” Frost asks, but we know they won’t, and can’t. The snow has melted into pools, the pools melt away into foliage—the competing forces are just a long chain of sources, of dying supersessions. And yet something remains to be mourned, if we remember how transient our lives are, about to vanish with the silence of the pools. It takes a hard nature to be grateful for the use our lives are to others. Frost knew that necessity as a form of regret.
Frost was a vain and arrogant man, and some of his humility is merely vanity. But some of it is humility, too. He knew his poems might not always be of use—he knew his life had not been much use to those he loved. When we tire of “Birches” and “Mending Wall,” of “After Apple-Picking” and “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “Fire and Ice” and all the other poems anthologized into the thick crust of our memories—after we have tired of these, there is another Frost, and another. The good in Frost often lies so close to the sentimental and bad, it is difficult to remember that some of the best-loved poems are the best, just as some are the worst and most trivial.
I’ve wanted here to be like Frost, to be a noticer of common things, of the uncommon in the common. Many of the poems in this other other Frost have caught the eyes of scholars (occasionally only to be dismissed—one weighty critic thought “The Code” and “A Hundred Collars” were “fatuously obvious”), but that has not saved them from general neglect. A reader who hasn’t gone beyond the white picket fence of the poems everyone knows by heart will find in Jarrell’s essays a remarkable unknown Frost (not quite as unknown now as then), and I hope another unknown Frost here. And I haven’t had a word for the grim poverty of “The Housekeeper,” for the chilling anecdote of “The Vanishing Red,” for “The Ax-Helve” or the strange fable of “Paul’s Wife” or the rough comedy of “Brown’s Descent,” for all the secret bitterness and knowledge in “Fireflies in the Garden,” for “The Mountain” (I might as well nominate all of North of Boston) or the brilliantly handled monologue of “The Black Cottage” (which Jarrell likes and then calls “lesser”) or “On Going Unnoticed.”
Frost is a Vermont-granite original. He is strange in the way that Whitman is strange: inconsistent, knowing and yet unknowable, likely to go off on goose chases, self-satisfied and yet raging against self-satisfaction, moral and honest (even when a little immoral and dishonest), his bad jumbled with his good, and yet finally and unconsciously and proof-bright American, representative of even the striving, sentimental, blank and blinkered parts of being American. An art like Frost’s is not just the residue of the country he inhabited, it is the factual prelude to that country’s imaginative acts. If we want those strange citizens of the next millennium to know what it was to be American in the last centuries of this one, we could do worse than to bury, in Camden or Keokuk or Fresno, in Tie Siding or Pensacola or Hanover or Fort Smith, a lead box with the collected poems of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 10, on page 21
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