A Familiar Voice: Robert Frost’s Poetry

Until I read biographical information about Robert Frost, I only knew him from his poetry. I always thought he was writing from a first-person viewpoint, but now I think he did much more teaching, writing, and lecturing than actually doing the things of his poems. It was a surprise to discover that Robert Frost only really ran the farm he inherited and probably did little if any, fieldwork because it was a condition of the inheritance. He sold it as soon as the ten years obligation was up. (Greenberg and Hepburn ix) However, he was a close observer of other people. Later on, he bought an apple farm and worked it, but he probably hired a great deal of the work, since there are a limited number of hours in each day, and he traveled and worked also.

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Frost was born in 1874 in San Francisco but moved east with his mother after his father’s death when he was a teen to live with her parents. Frost didn’t have an easy life, and he never really fit in, except that he was interested in everything. There is a family history of what might be called chemical illness, depression, and possibly schizophrenia. He said that he heard voices when he was a young child and his mother called it a gift. (The Literature Network, 2008)

He lost two of his children in their prime and a third lived only for a few days. Frost spend twenty-five years alone after his wife died, though he had a wide circle of friends. It echoes in the loneliness of some of his poetry. Frost and his family moved many times as he was a popular lecturer at universities but he seemed to eventually want to move on. (Greenberg and Hepburn x) The only place he always returned to was New England. He never finished a degree, though he was accepted at Dartmouth and Harvard, but he earned 17 honorary degrees and won four Pulitzer prizes.

He used everyday scenes for his poetry, and his language was not fancy. He considered that poetry should speak in conversational rhythm. (Juten and Zubizarreta 219) Most of his poetry can be read on two levels, whether the poet planned this or not, the literal and the symbolic. Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening is a good example of this. It could just be about wishing he could stop and rest as he takes the wagon home, or it could be about life and aging and death.

It may have just been automatic that he connected them because these things had symbolic meaning for him. His poetry is what one would call accessible since the images are things that touch us and we don’t have to unravel a huge long string of symbols to get at the meaning. I think Frost’s poetry does what I like poetry to do: it entertains with its images and sometimes creates an “ah” moment, but it also touches on a deeper level that somehow satisfies without the need to analyze. His poetry is more like visual art in this. Only the critics would try to analyze a Van Gogh. The rest of us are quite content just to look at it.

I am not really familiar with the landscapes that Frost uses, but they have becomes familiar through his work. Even more familiar are his people. We get that stoic, very much traditional, and not terribly talkative character when Frost describes his neighbor as they mend the fence in Mending Wall. The line is repeated: “Good fences make good neighbors,” and the poet cannot make the logic work for his neighbor that there is no need for a fence between a pine tree farm and an apple orchard.

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In fiction, character description is very important. It is best to use “tags” to show character rather than using a description. Frost’s poetry is like that. He points out “telling” details, details which are most important and which point to particular differences or particular character traits. He picks that out of his New England landscape and its people and culture, so we really get to know it. The Good Hours shows us a village where everyone goes to bed before 10 PM.

We see in this poem how Frost felt accepted and yet separated from these people at the same time. He takes a walk and he hears the people in the cottages playing music and dancing, and he feels their company as he starts his walk. However, when he returns the “shining eyes” had become black windows, and Frost feared that his footsteps profaned the slumbering street.

Frost’s technique is simple, but not easy to attain. He uses very simple images, which by themselves are not really memorable, but together they paint an emotional landscape that draws the reader in and imparts the secrets of the people and the place, and especially of the poet and his vision. He always wrote about what he saw, and mostly about New England. In a way, he painted with words. He may not have had any other thing in mind when he wrote a poem but to paint what he saw, heard and felt, and even smelled. Just after he published his first book in England, he met Ezra Pound (Sutton 81) and they became friends.

He was urged by Pound to use his poetry for political good but resisted, and they went their separate ways over this point. When we look at the subjects of Frost’s poetry, it seems like his body of work is simply everything he could see around him, and the sense he made of it.

Frost never forces rhyme, but he was not above nudging a little if the rhyme came. He explored almost every form just to exercise his brain. He wrote lyric poetry, as in A Line-Storm Song, where he used four verses of two quatrains each to create a wonderful love song. IN this poem he used a more rarified vocabulary, but he might actually have written this for his very well-educated wife. Normally his poetry has very few odd words in it, and those which are there are usually part of the New England way of speaking.

It seems as if Frost simply used whatever rhyme and rhythm patterns naturally occurred as he wrote and then worked with the rest to make it fit. The Road Not Taken has an odd though pleasant rhyme scheme of ABAAB-CDCCD-EFEEF-GHGGH. It has a nice traveling feel to it that fits the poem quite well. In this poem, I am certain that the poet is deliberately using symbolism because it is simply too obvious that he is talking about his life. His grandfather wanted him to study law, but Frost could never have abided by such restriction. He would never even accept a position as a lecturer if he was bound to a class schedule, so he was quite independent. The earliest published use of this rhyme scheme is a short poem:

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In Neglect

They leave us so to the way we took,

As two in whom they were proved mistaken,

That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,

With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look,

And try if we cannot feel forsaken.” (Frost

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I must amend what I mentioned earlier that Frost’s poetry is accessible, to include maybe only his poetry after the first volume. I cannot really decipher the meaning in this poem, but it is quite early, being from his first book: A Boy’s Will. I am guessing it is about youthful infatuation. In looking at this early volume, the language is very archaic and formal. However, even then, his subjects were simple observations of nature.

All of the poems in this early volume rhyme and there are a few sonnets. He did use varied rhyme schemes and lengths. I suspect that he refined his style as he got older, and later poems were not so dependent upon rhyme, though the meter he perfected is much like a conversation. After all, he was as much self-taught as any poet, probably learning much from reading and from teaching. That Frost had a clear observant eye is probably why he developed into such an outstanding poet.

While there is only a year between the publishing of A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), there seems to be a great deal of difference in the work. (Juten and Zubizarreta xiv) Perhaps the poetry of the first volume was actually quite a bit earlier than the publishing of the volume. Indeed, the difference between the poetry of these two volumes alone suggests a larger gap. The language is totally different, and though there is a little rhyme, Frost seems to have broken free of the need to rhyme. Many of these poems are long and they seem to be biographical portraits of his neighbors and their ways.

Mending Wall is probably the most well-known poem of this collection, but The Death of the Hired Man, a long poem, is a very intimate look at the culture and the character of the people. It revolves around the dilemma of two people who are struggling financially, and they allow a previously hired hand to come in to warm himself. They discuss what to do about it and finally decide to make a place for him. Then the husband goes to take him to his bed and finds the old man dead. This whole conversation is such a complete character description of the speakers, the “hired man”, his rich brother, and the culture surrounding it all.

The Good Hours shares the same theme with the first and some of the same symbolism. The thread of aging, loneliness, and weariness pervades this poem also, and it is another story of a journey as in the previous poem. Frost mentions that he is walking alone and it is, again, winter, very deep winter, since the cottages have snow up to their “shining eyes’. It is interesting that he mentions that he “thought” he had the folk within the cottages. This hints that he may have found out later that he did not have them for company, as it turns out when he returns and the “eyes” are dark.

This poem is another which stems from the literal but offers itself to symbolic interpretation. We don’t think of this poem as being about aging, loneliness, and the temptation to stop on the surface, but the narrative shows the narrator’s discovery that he has no real company and he is truly alone. We assume he is older since he describes the inhabitants of the cottages as “youthful” and we think they may be dancing to the fiddle music which he hears coming from the row of cottages.

We know there is a temptation to leave it all behind, perhaps to die, or at least get lost, because he says he goes way beyond the cottage, civilization, and the repents and turns around. He talks as if he expected that he would not be alone if he returned, but he is disappointed to find that all the windows are dark and everyone has gone to sleep without even acknowledging his journey, either his leaving or his return. It has gone unnoticed. However, he hears his footsteps in the snow on this quiet night and feels even more that he does not belong, the sound of his steps profanes the evening so late at 10 PM. It is here where he realizes he did not “have” any company on his journey out and none to come back to either.

Sometimes Frost looked at people around him from inside, feeling with them, as in The Death of the Hired Man, where he wrote from the persona of the woman who sympathizes with the hired man. At other times he looks at them from his own special perspective, and he is not always kind, though he is always observant. Mending Wall is one of those where he looks from outside, almost as an outsider at the personal foibles of some kinds of people.

The poem is unrhymed but maintains a conversational rhythm. He starts off with the declaration that makes us think he does not particularly like walls either, but that he bends to the ritual to please his neighbor. He uses inversion to strengthen the word “something”, to personify it and give it power. He describes the process of walking the wall, “We keep the wall between us as we go.” He shows us here that he is aware of a gap between him and his stoic neighbor who seems comforted by tradition.

He shows a bit of humor when he tries to reason with his neighbor, perhaps hoping he can terminate this useless “outdoor game”: “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” But the neighbor either is not listening or reasoning, because he replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At this point, we can almost feel the intense temptation that Frost alludes to, “Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder/If I could put a notion in his head:”

The next part of the poem shows us an image, highly amusing, of a cave man-hauling stones, “like an old-stone savage armed.” He sees that the man’s mind is totally closed to new ideas. “He moves in darkness as it seems to me,/Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” He realizes that no amount of logic will ever get through. We share this realization with Frost as we share his image of the man, hear him speak, see him move. Even if we have never been to New England, we have just added a “type” to our internal database of New England characters database. Frost has painted us a picture of rural life and of his stoic, overly traditional neighbor, who finds safety in the familiar. Frost is not outright making fun of his neighbor, but he is pointing out his foibles.

These lines, to me, are the most important of the entire poem:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.’” (Frost, Robert 1914)

Frost is alluding to all the walls in his life, maybe even the world, and we feel disappointed at not being able to change the fact that he will always be an “outsider”, accepted and respected, but still an outsider. I guess, in a way, that is the fate of all poets. They have to be a little outside their culture in order to see it in a way that helps them mirror it in their work.

References

Frost, Robert. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. Mending Wall. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. The Good Hours. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. A Line-Storm Song. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. The Road Not Taken. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. The Death of the Hired Man. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. In Neglect. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Questia. Web.

Frost, Robert. 1913, A Boy’s Will, David Nutt & Co. Gloucestershire, UK.

Frost, Robert. 1914, North of Boston, David Nutt & Co. Gloucestershire, UK.

Greenberg, Robert A., and James G. Hepburn, eds. Robert Frost, an Introduction. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961. Questia. Web.

Juten, Nancy Lewis, and John Zubizarreta, eds. The Robert Frost Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001. Questia. Web.

Sutton, William A., ed. Newdick’s Season of Frost : An Interrupted Biography of Robert Frost /. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1976. Questia. Web.

The literature Network, 2008, Robert Frost Biography. Web.

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