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An Undiscovered America in Frost’s Poetry


ISSUE:  Summer 1925

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” — North of Boston.

This year Mr. Frost’s name is quite before the public. In May he opened the institute of present-day American literature held at Bowdoin College to commemorate the centenary of the graduation of Longfellow and Hawthorne. In fall he assumes permanently the position of visiting poet at the University of Michigan—an event full of auspicious indications for the development of American letters. Just ten years ago, through “North of Boston,” he made his first notable impact upon America; but in large measure his readers were still a coterie. Now, without losing his coterie, he has won a more general and public character. Old-fashioned persons who are still guilty of liking Longfellow and Wordsworth, and who reject the bulk of our current verse, read Frost with pleasure. Academic audiences respond to him with a feeling that, in some curious way, he is really one of themselves. At Amherst College, he was actually writ down “Professor of English Literature.” Yet he is not at all academic. He moves in neighborly fashion among modernistic thinkers and poetic extremists, and writes passages that they love. Yet he doesn’t belong to them. Well, where does he belong? A fair critical answer to this question would best commemorate the decennial of Robert Frost’s American debut.

So far, the answer has been left mostly to contemporary poets and reviewers. Poets are notoriously unreliable, however, as critics of other poets. For example, Miss Amy Lowell’s treatment of Keats and of Frost assimilates them too much to her own very marked point of view. As for the reviewers: they have now reached the opposite extreme from the protagonists of a century ago: they are extraordinarily sympathetic to current verse and, for the most part, they identify their own outlook and criteria with those of the poets themselves. This is a happy situation for artists who are swimming entirely in contemporary streams. But the result for Mr. Frost’s work has been a peculiar distortion, with some wrong blame and much wrong praise. The fact is that during the past ten years the periodical critics, after too much neglecting him, have responded to his work with a generosity far too brisk and superficial. He would have been better understood if the past decade had been a period of political and inward quietness, capable of hearkening patiently for rich undertones of song; or if he himself had been a quick-fledged genius, narrowly explicit in vision, and quivering to the jerky migrations of the time in every feather. As it is, the critics have caught the contemporary aspects of his outlook and some idiosyncrasies of his style. They have emphasized his drab realism and free earthy tang on the one hand, and on the other his New England idioms and whimsies. But they have largely missed the central humour and mood of his verse. In his last volume. “New Hampshire,” his humour is more marked than ever. Yet it was entirely slighted in two prominent reviews of that book, one on either side of the Atlantic; London Times, July 24, and New York Evening Post, March 22, 1924.

Each side of the Atlantic, for different reasons, desires American humour to be characteristically American, like our “movies,” And Mr. Frost’s humour is quite un-American in its slowness to “register,” in its very quiet and gradual way of “intriguing’ the reader. Even so it would seem strange that intelligent critics could peruse with brows completely knitted a book that was written with a constant smile. The explanation seems to be that our dominant lit-terary taste at present, while alert for smart satire or picayune intensities, is rather obtuse to the profoundest kind of humour. It finds humour too flat for interest unless it is very effervescent,—as in the delightful essays of Christopher Morley, or in the voluble determined jokings of Stephen Leacock. Frost’s humour, however, never quite bubbles; when it tends to do so it loses its own fine distinction. On the other hand, it never quite subsides. It is a ripe northern whiskey, far from entirely “made in America,” rare and socially helpful at the present time. Casual callers would appreciate it better, I think, if Mr. Frost would now assign to it a more elaborate decanter than heretofore: I mean, a narrative poem like “Snow” and “The Death of the Hired Man” fused together and ten times longer. However, to imbibe his present works from beginning to end, and back again, with decent intervals for meditation between drams, is to feel his humour gradually seeping through one’s whole system. One vibrates from tip to toe with soundless laughter. And the vibration recommuni-cates itself to the goblet in hand. In other words, many a passage of his verse that at first looked flat and colorless— or sadly or redly colored, from reflection of obtrusive objects in the atmosphere of our age—now shows its right hue and sparkles quietly back to us, a vital tawny-gray.

We ought to reanimate, for Mr. Frost’s sake, and for our own sake in this age of literary cults, the old wide sense of the word “humour,” denoting a central and fluent mood. It would help to set us in a tide of life free from forced laughter, from hot little coves of emotion, and from ragged little rocks of factuality. Mr. Frost’s essential mood, from its very nature, cannot be penned into definitions, or well displayed in quotations. It is the humour of one who, like Emerson and Whitman, will not commit himself to anything short of Life itself; but who, unlike them, will not cultivate life ecstatically„ either in soul or soil. Our poet has realized that romantic energia in all its forms and disguises (from Masefield, let’s say, to E. L. Masters) is quite off color today. “Nothing gold can stay,” he sings; like his own Oven Bird when “the highway dust is over all:”

“The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.”

He perches not far from soul and soil. Between those two houses of life he will be a good neighbor: kindly, shrewd, withdrawing, humorously watchful of right values in everyday intercourse. He calls himself, half seriously, a “sen-sibilist;” and one thinks of Montaigne. He is really the profoundest humour-poet of our time, and has been generously recognized—as everything but that.

His persistent solitariness of mood, for instance, has been misinterpreted. His is the sort of loneliness which insists that Life itself is not lonely but neighborly—neither intimate nor aloof. He constantly gives us a part mystic, part comic, sense of Life standing-off a bit from life and assessing it, in right neighborly fashion. He recoils from explicit judgments, as apt to be too mental and committal. He will give us hell, or heaven, only in friendly hints. As for hell: in rebutting the charge that he condemns New Hampshire life in particular, he is drawn to confess that he has written his books “against the world in general.” He thinks the world has in it enough “fire and ice” (desire and hate) to compass its own destruction by either means, and enough blather to obscure its own great needs:

“Better defeat almost,
If seen clear,
Than life’s victories of doubt
That need endless talk after talk
To make them out.”

In short, human life is considerably hellish. As to its heavenly tincture:

“—blue so far above us comes so high
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.”

He admits, though he refuses to assert, that he wants to make something of whatever “fragmentary blue” he comes across on earth. The fragments are insufficient to inspire him with any enthusiasm, but sufficient to make him “want life to go on living.” So long as it goes on, he doesn’t wish to fly off, since he “doesn’t know where it’s likely to go better.” He refuses to get tangled in this mazy world of ours; his mind tends to “let go of it;” but

“—nothing tells me
That I need learn to let go with the heart”

This ambiguous humour is rendered with extraordinary power in “The Census-taker.” The speaker comes to a decayed woodmen’s hut in a vast cut-over mountain region:

“An emptiness flayed to the very stone.
I found no people that dared show themselves,
None not in hiding from the outward eye—
And every tree stood up a rotting trunk
Without a single leaf to spend on autumn,
Or branch to whistle after what was spent.”

When the wind has slammed the door of the shack nine times, he enters, as “the tenth across the threshold:”

“The stove was cold—the stove was off the chimney—
And down by one side where it lacked a leg.
The people that had loudly passed the door
Were people to the ear but not the eye.
They were not on the table with their elbows.
They were not sleeping in the shelves of bunks.”

This “house in one year fallen to decay” has a melancholy as valid as ever Byron at his best elaborated from the ruins of the old world; but of a very different quality. One feels here America’s wide desire of ordinary persons and ordinary labor. Yet her vast busy scene is thrown into poetic distance; and we can imagine it, in some future century, allied with the places

“Fallen to ruin in ten thousand years
Where Asia wedges Africa from Europe.”

At the same time the poet regards the scene with a sort of half-smiling irony. He makes us feel that Poetry wants our life “to go on living,” but that she is far from being satisfied with it and committed to it. If, as quickly as we have become a numerous noisy nation, we should “shrink to none at all,”—she would express a melancholy regret even while turning, with a certain humorous relief, to life elsewhere. She is like the owner of the forsaken woodpile in “North of Boston:” “Someone who lives in turning to fresh tasks.”

Mr. Frost’s attitude is thus quite different from another kind of ambiguity prominent in present literature. One moment a poet will submerge himself energetically in some more or less ugly aspect of the democratic-industrial world; the next moment, for needed relief, he will fly to alien beauties, or he may swim in a rather uneasy mid-region of mingled satire and yearning. This region is more animated but less satisfying than the ironic humour of Mr. Frost. He keeps to his highway, never disappearing headfirst into marshy places, nor hailing an aeroplane. His impulses in either direction are very marginal,—more so in his last volume than ever. Here the flyaway theme that pulsed in “A Boy’s Will,” and sent some echoes through “A Mountain Interval,” becomes (as hinted in one poem) “An Empty Threat.” At the same time the few realistic-pathological elements that appeared in “North of Boston” (in “Home Burial,” “A Servant to Servants,” and “The Fear”) have entirely gone. Instead we find such a poern as “Paul’s Wife,” with its humorous-pathetic Pygmalion of the lumber-camps, and that dramatic masterpiece “The Witch of Coos,” with its rare mingling of genial and shivering humours, the genial predominating. In this story the skeleton of a murdered man moves about with “the faintest restless rustling” in the homely fancies of Mrs. Toffile Lajway, and “carries itself like a pile of dishes” up from the frozen cellar to the creaking attic of her everyday life.

An atmosphere of natural mystery, coming down like a thin snowfall that settles into the earth with scarcely here and there a hint of covering, belongs to Mr. Frost’s humour. Drab everyday objects—Mrs. Lajway’s chandelier, button-box, and window-shutter—maintain their own quaint contours sharply while faint lines of incidence begin to relate them to an upper air. The mystery, in large measure, is the mystery of human personality. Always there is some one “in hiding from the outward eye.” Moreover the personages who talk and gesture in the foreground, vivid though they be for a while, have about them a certain tentative and momentary air,—eminently in the sharp little sketch, “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” In “Snow,” which seems to me the most remarkable among Mr. Frost’s longer poems of persons, the central figure, Brother Meserve, is transient as the gust of storm that opens the dialogue,

“—a fresh access
Of wind that caught against the house a moment,
Gulped snow, and then blew free again.”

On his way home at night he has had to take refuge awhile in the farmhouse of the Coles. Their regard of him is not so cold and blind as the driving snow’s, being opened and warmed a little by humour. But to them he is less a person than a repugnant type,—the conceited pastor of a “wretched little Racker Sect,” who “seems to have lost off his Christian name:”

“That sort of man talks straight on all his life
From the last thing he said himself, stone deaf
To anything anyone else may say”—

Yet beside the lamp in the sitting-room—while the snow climbs the sash, looking as if

“Some pallid thing had squashed its features flat
And its eyes shut with overeagerness
To see what people found so interesting
In one another, and had gone to sleep
Of its own stupid lack of understanding”—

Meserve becomes for a short time a real individual. At the same time, his own words give us a sense that he is only one of Life’s ways, and that Life has many ways. Presently he goes out into the darkness and snow again, and the Coles feel that they have been “too much concerned:”

“—But let’s forgive him.
We’ve had a share in one night of his life.
What’ll you bet he ever calls again?”

Mr. Frost’s persons are too near him to be ghostly; but they’re not living with him as relatives and house-mates. He has no more thought of letting them into his inmost concerns than of repulsing them when they pause on the road by his field for a chat: “No, not as there is a time to talk.” They are his neighbors, in the right New England sense of the word. At bottom, however, his mystic-humorous treatment of persons is not New England’s; as one may clearly see by tracing it back to his first volume where, appearing in naivest form, it reveals its relationships with general poetic tradition. Essentially it is the old mystical-poetic view of earthly persons as transient forms of Life or Soul. Occasionally it has in Frost a religious overtone. But, true son of his age, this poet doesn’t want to “drag God into it.” He will not commit himself to the Emersonian or other mode of the Soul. He is humorously wary of twisting, soulfully, the hard autumn-facts of earth. He glances into the philosophic and romantic avenues of the Soul, and turns away. He reapproaches his neighbors with a deepened sense of his and their elusiveness, as in “The Lockless Door,” and a more pungent humour for meeting them while there is still “a time to talk.”

He finds their labors and their working-ways somewhat less passing than themselves; also peculiarly expressive of them and, beyond them, of life that wants “to go on living.” Hence the rare inward beauty of his poetry of human work. Any object shaped or even testingly touched by human hands has an idiomatic fascination for him. He keeps turning it over and over, loath to leave it till he has caught all its smell of mortality. Wild nature has small part in his verse. Deep in the forests he likes to find a telegraph wire in summer, and in winter a woodpile with “runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.” He loves to watch a human way develop, if it can, through obstinate material. Baptiste in “The Axe-Helve” is Poetry and Hand-labor at one in the effort of finely shaping a piece of tough-grained hickory; at the same time he becomes an individual, a neighbor, shaped out from the human mass through his own work. “A Star in a Stone-Boat” touches at the deepest beauty of work through a profoundly humorous image:

“Never tell me that not one star of all
That slip from heaven at night and softly fall
Has been picked up with stones to build a wall.”

The ordinary farm-laborer, in the act of thus utilizing a meteorite, would not recognize its real nature. Therefore a laborer who is also a poet must rediscover it:

“From following walls i never lift my eye
Except at night to places in the sky
Where showers of charted meteors let fly.
Some may know what they seek in school or church
And why they seek it there; for what
I search I must go measuring stone walls, perch on perch.”

But Mr. Frost will no more idealize work than anything else. He loves the human shaping of places and objects; but he is almost as much interested in finding them deserted, given over to “the slow smokeless burning of decay.” A full humour evades fixity. It is amusing to note how much this poet “doesn’t love a wall,” for instance, even while he pats fondly the stones that have been laboriously dragged to it in stone-boats and shaped into it by hand. He likes broken and deserted walls as well. He finds in human work, after all, the transience of the persons who do it. Moreover, he feels how much of human effort is uncreative or capricious: we like “to plough the snow,” he notes, when we’re feeling bitter “at having cultivated rock.” Very much of it, again, is too mechanic for warm personal interest. In this regard his story of “The Grindstone” of rural boyhood becomes a rich apologue:

“It stands beside the same old apple tree.
The shadow of the apple tree is thin
Upon it now, its feet are fast in snow.”

He intimates that he could drive the grindstone hard in youth, when Time bade. But on the whole he finds his loitering more fruitful. He writes, indeed, the poetry of loitering—very different from the Whitmanian loafing. In one poem we find him pausing in the midst of late chores, with head between the stars and the barnyard, to take a longdistance look at human labors on the one hand, and “the infinities” on the other. He ponders the case of a nearby farmer who had burned down his own house to buy with the insurance money a great telescope; which thereafter was locally christened “the star-splitter” because it revealed to the neighborhood two or three stars where one httd been before. The result:

“We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night to-night
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?”

Yet he believes the costly rusticated telescope

“—ought to do some good if splitting stars
’Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.”

Each of these two modes of effort helps to throw the other into true focus, doesn’t it?—so long as the poet commits himself to neither.

The Frostian humour is peculiarly important for America. No other of our poets has shown a mood at once so individual and so neighborly. Moreover, the comparative thinness of American literature, its lack of full social body and flavor, is due to the extraordinary interval between our artistry and our national life. Our nation is widespreading and unformed, tangled in raw freedoms and archaic conventionalities. Our poetry, now responding to and now reacting from our national life, tends to be rather banal, or rather esoteric—in either case, thin. Mr. Frost’s work is notably free from that double and wasting tendency. His own ambiguity is vital: it comes from artistic integrity in rare union with fluent sympathy. His poetic humour is on the highway toward the richer American poetry of the future, if that is to be.

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