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The Figure a Poet Makes

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $5.00.

Sir Henry Irving said that a good actor makes the mold for his own form in the company with which he acts. He cannot fit himself into the mold left by another actor. The figure pleases me at the moment for it suggests Robert Frost’s phrase in the preface to the beautiful new volume of “The Collected Poems of Robert Frost”: “The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same for love.” The first line commits the poet and he moves on, surprised himself at the poem that forms. The figure is the same, too, for a poet. He begins in delight and ends in wisdom, and between the beginning and the ending is formed the pattern of the life that a poet lives.

Frost has been called a realist and also an idealist. It is one of the several paradoxes of his nature that he is both and neither. His comment—though I think he has never put it in print—has often been quoted as to the kind of realist he is. He does not hand you the potato with all the dirt on it. He scrubs the potato to form. He has said in a talk that he is not an idealist but an “idea-ist.” He has not seen a vision of a perfect world through parting clouds in the sky. He believes in working, with what implements and methods there are, toward the realization of the best ideas you have been able to think through in your own mind. He is an individualist, not an institutionalist. A man needs the courage that grows out of his loneliness, he needs the strength he develops by standing alone. I think all the virtues, for Frost, begin with one, and grow from one to two, and two by two. He invites you as a poet not in groups but singly. “You come, too,” he says in “The Pasture,” a poem that is the foreword poem in each of his collected volumes. The moral in his early poem, “The Tuft of Flowers,” is that no man works alone; but the message of the uncut blossoms that the reaper left comes to the other worker by himself. Frost is not a col-lectivist. I believe that is true of his religion, his sociology, his politics, his economics, his esthetics; in short, of his whole philosophy. His conception of the adequate man is as self-centered, self-contained, self-directed, but not self-sufficient. Not every man by himself, to himself, for himself; but every man in himself, through himself and from himself. I do not think of Robert Frost as talking about “duty.” “It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The figure is the same for love. That is the secret of a good poem or a good axe helm. It is also the secret of a good poet and a good life. Lovers are by twos and twos and the revolution in America that will count is a one-man revolution. With no arithmetic but twice one is two he, gets in all, because somehow every two is one and all the ones make together the sum of the whole. That is a paradox, also, that the institutionalist cannot resolve. Emerson said in effect somewhere that a general’s philosophy is more important than the number of his troops. A man is what he believes, he meant. I think Frost would judge a man by what he loves. What counts is what begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The obligations, the requirements, the other person’s standards are not what really matter. The test of this view is in his poems almost anywhere. Home is not “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” it is “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” It’s yours by force of love or something like it, for loyalty is a degree of love.

Perhaps an understanding of Robert Frost’s philosophy of every man’s right to his own life and his own way of life is the best explanation of his position in the United States today. Foremost living American poet and, since Yeats’ death, first of living poets of the English tongue, he stands neither as a great national figure nor even as a great symbol, as Yeats did. He stands as a great and individual figure of a man and a poet. He seems even a lonely figure. Yet, he has friends everywhere. He belongs to no group, he has established no cult. We shall not say “After Frost,” as they say “After Pound” or “After Eliot.” But his “tuft of flowers” gladdens and will gladden the hearts separately of thousands who never heard the sound of his scythe. An understanding of him begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same for love. That is the figure, too, that a poet makes.


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