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The Wholeness of Robert Frost

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Robert Frost doesn’t love a wall, the sort of wall that

constricts and imprisons human individuality, that cuts it off from other human beings, makes of it something partial, incomplete. He is so thorough an individualist that he sometimes baffles people; he will not be imprisoned in this or that category; the only pigeon-hole you can put him in is the one marked “for those not to be pigeon-holed!” This is his consistency—the dissidence of dissent. Such a man cannot write war poetry “to order.” In a time of total war this limitation seems to some to brand him a “partial” man. I had not seen Robert Frost for three or four years until recently and I was a little disturbed about him. They said he was an isolationist; they said he was anti-British; my young radical friends said he was an out-and-out Fascist, (The pigeon-holers were at work.) But I needn’t have been disturbed. I discovered what I might have known: that he was still simply Robert Frost.

That does not mean he is the simple “bucolic” poet that some people have called him. For all his simplicity he is a very complex man. He is a bundle of paradoxes, superficial and profound: the modern poet of New England, yet born in San Francisco; a “Yankee,” but named Robert Lee Frost; a rural poet, who spends most of his time in these latter years in cities; unacademic to the last degree, yet on the staff of Harvard University; New England to the bone, but, like so many other American writers, first recognized in old England (it was a London bobby who first directed this most unpoliced of poets to a publisher); a man deeprooted in a little corner of the vast land, but really a “tramp,” as Dwight Morrow once told him; probing the very local and the very finite

To satisfy a life-long curiosity About our place among the infinities.

I don’t know how many different farms he now owns— three or four, I should guess. (They are all in Vermont; that is my chief grudge against him—that he has deserted New Hampshire.) I don’t suppose any of them is very productive—not even the apple orchard in South Shafts-bury. Like most New England hill farms you couldn’t raise much on them, not even a disturbance, as an old lady who lived on New Hampshire farms for a hundred years used to say. But they have sufficed for poetry, whatever other crop they have failed to raise; they have made him what he wrote to a friend thirty years ago about Thomas Hardy— “one of the most earthly wise of our time.”

That is why he baffles and irritates the cataloguers, that and a malicious playfulness that is part of his being a poet. I remember talking with him once on a high New Hampshire hill and he talked about poetry as play—play with ideas, images, words: you will have noted the word-twisting in his poetry—words “that are nailed down with precision of meaning so that the wrench away, for metaphor, is the arresting thing,” as he put’t another time. He likes to play with people, too, to spoof them mightily, and they do not always know what to make of it. He rambles on in his talk, thinking aloud, shaping the idea or the metaphor plastically. You think he is going to freeze it, nail it down, but it wriggles like “the ten million silver lizards out of snow” of “A Hillside, Thaw,” he wrenches it away. You think you have him cornered, you think you are going to be able to tag him, then he twists the idea or the metaphor, he jumps into an opposite corner, he evades being tagged.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” So, he is an internationalist. But in the same poem the farmer says: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Then he is not an internationalist, after all? He will not answer you—make of it what you can, he says. Earthly wisdom is not to be boxed:

I love to toy with the Platonic notion That wisdom need not be of Athens Attic, But well may be Laconic, even Boeotian. At least I will not have it systematic.

Of course, he doesn’t get into his poetry the sprawl and lustiness of America, as Whitman did; life but “life stripped to form” is what he once said he was after. Form was what he found in Turgenev and Keats. “Good fences make good neighbors,” but the poet’s mind leaps fences and walls, local and national.

Therefore, he is as American as Ben Franklin or William James, both of whom he admires. The pluralism of James was a natural outgrowth of America’s diversity of climate, landscape, religion, race. It is a peculiarly American, a peculiarly democratic philosophy: it is implicit in Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia.” We return to it thirstily in this time of totalitarian menace. But it is also an outlook that poets and artists whose business is the diverse human race have shared—Shakespeare’s universe was surely a pluralistic one.

Like James, like Shakespeare too, Frost knows that the world has need of both the tender-minded and the tough-minded. He is both. You will find, in an evening, in an hour, with him that he can be harsh, impish, and intolerant, gentle, catholic, and wise. There are two views of his face no artist, no camera can catch: a set, lined, wrinkled, granite view, and a gentle, soft, whimsical view—a sort of blindman’s face, with blue eyes deep-set under shaggy brows, child-like and innocent, but, as you look again, penetrating and shrewd.

A good poet does not have to be a narrow patriot, but he has to be as large as humanity. In these latter days, we have discovered, somewhat to our amazement, that he has to be something beyond a mere rhymester, whether dwelling in a New York tower or on a remote New England hill-top. We have discovered that he may even be a politician. We recall that Milton was for twenty years Latin Secretary of the Commonwealth. Perhaps that was what Henry Fielding was thinking of when he said: “The good poet and the good politician do not differ so much as some who know nothing of either art affirm; nor would Homer or Milton have made the worst legislators of their times.” In our own time, Carl Sandburg has immersed himself in musty documents and given us the liveliest portrait of our greatest politician and our greatest democrat. Archibald MacLeish has been not only a poet, but a lawyer and a journalist. He has become a pamphleteer for the times; he has rejected his obscurities for the language of public speech; he has remembered that poetry had its birth in the voice of the race and he has not scorned to use the new medium that can bring poetry to millions instead of to mere handfuls in hushed chapels.

Robert Frost was never a mere poet. Before our younger poets discovered that poetry could not be separated from the age, he was a farmer of sorts, a teacher, and a philosopher. He knew that a poet must be a whole man. He could not be a pamphleteer nor write a song to order about the Battle of Lexington, when they wired him for one. (But he threatened once, and half in earnest, to run for Congress from Vermont.) Neither did he conceive that it was the duty of the whole man to worship “the bitch-goddess Success.”

That is why, perhaps, he was alien to the halcyon American days of the years before 1914. Life has dealt harshly with him as well as kindly; his mood fits more closely the tragic and heroic days in which we live. With all his diversity, with all his complexity, with all his contrariness, even, his course has run clear. In the first poem of “A Boy’s Will” he proclaimed:

They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Today, nearing seventy, he is still the realist and the idealist, in the best senses of those two much misused words, When others’ faith faltered, when younger poets became expatriates, when other writers whored after the strange gods of Communism or Fascism, he never lost faith in America or the common men that make up America. In his latest thin volume he still proclaims it:

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s. She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people. She was ours In Massachusetts, in Virginia, But we were England’s, still colonials, Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more possessed. Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found it was ourselves We were withholding from our land of living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender. Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war) To the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she would become.

There is no shrill made-to-order patriotism about this; it is not the partial Americanism of “the American century.” It knows no boundaries; like a leguminous plant, it derives strength from the very air to enrich the soil in which it grows. It is timeless, too. “How about being a good Greek, for instance?” It will go for Socrates, twenty-four hundred years ago; it will go for the Greeks and the Chinese and the Russians today, it will go for the men of Dunkirk, it will go for all people everywhere, from now until the crack of doom, who want life and yet will take death rather than a prison.


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