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Robert Frost: American Poet

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

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

There is a respect in which Robert Frost is the most fortunate poet in America. He has never been exploited: neither by himself nor anyone else. How familiar the spectacle is of the artist in the United States who all of a sudden “makes the front page.” He is the subject of essays, the guest of complimentary dinners, the starred performer of the lecture agency—a nine days’ wonder for the social teas. Enthusiasm boils over and scalds his soberer reputation by its excesses. Then if he becomes a trifle drunken with the heady wine of publicity and, like Miss M. in Walter de la Mare’s “Memoirs of a Midget,” staggers ungracefully before his exhibitors’ eyes, a surge of revulsion follows and his popularity ebbs out, leaving a sense of over-adulation and staleness on the public mind. There is nothing spectacular about Frost and there has been nothing spectacular about the slow growth of his fame. Now that at last all his published poems are gathered in one volume, the first quality that his reader feels present in them all is his humanity. There is such a cool, sane, human interest that one is tempted to feel a lack of the passionate-ness that a poet must have to be a real poet. But if passion is depth and intensity of feeling, Robert Frost is the most passionate poet America has ever produced. It is the genuineness of his feeling that keeps Frost from ever striking the false note. His love of nature goes so deep that he is tempted neither to paint pretty pictures of it nor to read into it an animism that he does not find. Yet he sees it all through the eye of human nature. His wood-pile with strings of clematis wound about it suggests to him “someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks.” His birches make him feel that “some boy’s been swinging them.” His wild grape vine hints at “a philosophy of hang-and-let-hang,” because he knows the way of boys with wild grapes. Even the oven bird that raises the question of “what to make of a diminished thing,” though objectively treated as a bird, is seen through human eyes: the poet too, we feel, frames in all but words the same question. The subject he writes about is never wrenched from the dignity of its own nature and expressed in human terms, but it is chosen because it has some significance to human eyes besides its picturesqueness. When the two lovers come face to face with the buck and his doe in “Two Look at Two,” it is human nature facing deer nature. Such a picture might be symbolical of how nature and man reflect each other in Frost’s poetry. Frost, like the buck in the poem, views things quizzically.

Sometimes there has been read into certain of Frost’s poems a mysticism which he would not grant he had put there. It is there all the same. That is, it is there for the mind that sees it there. In a poem, humorous in this case, like “The Bear,” the poet has chosen in fun to make the bear anthropomorphic. But it is man that is treated in terms of bear rather than bear that is made man: “he almost looks religious but he’s not.” Frost can find, even for comic purpose, the same values outside of man’s experience that he finds in man. He seems to suggest his philosophy mystically by symbols out of nature, by individual incidents about men, but he himself as a poet is not being mystical or using the symbolic method. He simply chose the theme because he sees it is the one case that will serve as the pebble in the water. He throws it in to start the waves of suggestion and they go on rippling and rippling; but it is in your mind that the circles spread. There may be quite another series of circles in another mind, though their relation to the point at which the pebble struck the water will be the same.

In his poems about people it is easier to see both the sane humanity of Frost and the strong reserve power which makes his passion such a controlled passion. “The Code,” or the long poem “Snow,” would either serve as an example. The strong human feeling of the poet in his dealing with his characters is as taciturn and restrained as his characters, which are for all that so “human” that they, are never remembered as imagined but as actual people. In “The Code,” the closing line, “Discharge me? No! He knows I did just right,” is like the release of a powerfully restrained spring or coil; the smoke of the explosion suddenly puffs in your face. So with “The Death of the Hired Man,” the most popular of Frost’s dramatic short-stories in verse. The one phrase of the wife’s, “Warren, he has come home to die,” is just the release-snap that changes the irony of the situation to tragic pathos. Frost in adopting the conversational tones of the human voice as the basis for his metre, and in tuning his finest musical lines, as well as expressing his most moving human episodes, to the conversational tones, hit upon the very medium for the expression of passion in restraint. The quiet speech of his New Englanders must escape sensationalism as it also makes impossible sentimentalism. Pathos and even tragedy remain human and sound as long as they are spoken in the tones of human intercourse.

If Frost is one of the most philosophic of poets, it is still beside the point to try to formulate his philosophy. His is a philosophy of common-sense. In the combination of the philosopher and the practical man of wisdom, Robert Frost is like Emerson, of whom he reminds one in some ways only because they are so different. Frost’s philosophy always derives from personal experience and his poems in detail are personal and objective. They, are, as has been indicated, human, conversational, humorous, quietly dramatic (sometimes in an almost commonplace way)—and very local. Yet he is the most American poet and he universalizes everything that he touches. Truth is often hidden in a paradox. So with Frost. He seems interested only in the particular but the particular is for him the universal. He finds the center of the universe in every grain of sand that’blows by his Vermont farm gate: the center of the universe is the focus from which the poet, who is also the philosopher, looks out in all directions upon the universe. Vermont, New Hampshire:—does a poet need to draw a map of the world to prove that a man in South Shaftsbury is the same man he would be in Moscow?

Because I wrote my novels in New Hampshire
Is no proof I aimed them at New Hampshire.

Robert Frost is both as a thinker and an artist subtle and elusive. It is his art most of all that proves him a great poet. It would be difficult to analyze the form of his poetry because it isn’t a thing apart from the content. The “form of one of Frost’s poems fits the matter as if it had grown out of it and with it. Perhaps he has given the secret in “The Aim Was Song.” Frost himself whimsically says that a poem ought to have a squirm of thought running through it. And perhaps if the form of the poem is properly twisted to the squirm of thought there results “the wind the wind had meant to be.”

Before man came to blow it right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.

Man came to tell it what was wrong:
It hadn’t found the place to blow;
It blew too hard—the aim was song.
And listen—how it ought to go!

He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough for north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.

By, measure. It was word and note,
The wind the wind had meant to be—
A little through the lips and throat.
The aim was song—the wind could see.

To my judgment no richer volume of poetry has been produced in America since Poe’s volume of 1845: a volume, this of Frost’s, of one hundred and sixty-two poems no one of which might have been omitted to the poet’s advantage. Robert Frost has been strangely made. Born in California of a Massachusetts father and Scottish mother, he was named for the Southern leader, Robert Lee. He was reared in New England, published his first poems in England, and living first in New Hampshire, then Vermont, has grown into the most typically American of all living poets. That phrase is of course a challenge. No foreigner would so quickly find Frost typically American as he would Sandburg or Lindsay, or Sinclair Lewis or Sherwood Anderson. Buti Frost is typical of the whole of America and of the traditions of America. He is typical as his own figures in | his poems are typical, in that he is individual in a universal sense. The others are typical of something in America, some phase of America. But Frost has grown out of America like one of its forest trees. That great America of the mountain sides and the open fields, the small towns and the quiet homes in the cities; men and women, quiet, unmoved, and sound in heart and head; who never get on the front pages of the paper or run to the pier to meet the European celebrity: that is the America of which Frost is typical. He keeps his head in the midst of confusion: like the tree by his window every passing wind plays upon him but the roots of his being are unshaken.

The more a sensibilitist I am
The more I seem to want my mountains wild.


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