A Great ‘Classic’
Robert Frost has been called the finest American poet of the 20th century, “the purest classical poet of America to-day”, “the one great American poet of our times”, and a New Englander in the, “great tradition, fit to be placed beside Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau”. He has been called, “the voice of America”, and more honours have been showered upon him than any other American poet of the century. On the occasion of the inauguration of Kennedy as the President of the U.S.A. he was called upon to recite one of his most patriotic poems The Gift Outright, and another of his lovely lyrics Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening was the stay and solace of Jawahar Lal Nehru during the last years of his life. He has won world-wide fame and recognition, and has already established himself a ‘classic’, as one who is so great that he stands in a class by himself.
His Simplicity: His Complexity
The first thing which strikes the eye is the extreme simplicity of his poetry. He writes of the simplest subjects, and he says what he has to say in the most lucid and simple manner. It is this simplicity of Frost which has endeared him to ordinary readers. They admire him and go to him again and again, for they can understand and appreciate him without any trouble. But this simplicity of Frost is deceptive. As a matter of fact. Frost is both for the masses and the classes—the learned few as Randall Jarrell points out, a careful reading of his poems reveals that he is extraordinarily subtle, complex and intricate. They have a rich texture, and there are layers within layers of meaning. He makes extensive use of symbols to convey profound truths, and in this respect he is one with such modern poets as Eliot, Yeats, Pound and Auden. As he himself tell us, “he is by intention a symbolist who takes his symbols from the public domain”. His complexity is seen in his habit of bringing together the opposites of life in the manner of the metaphysical poets. “He is a highly conscious artist who is constantly lauding impulse, a penetrating thinker who is afraid of being discovered in the act of thought, a countryman who conceals behind his feeling for the land a sophisticated attitude towards men and their motives.” The ambivalence in his work, appears in the taste for contraries, in the opposition of worlds of light with worlds of darkness in the passion for balancing one idea against its opposite, in the conflicts between good and evil, reason and instinct, conflicts which Frost is always reluctant to resolve completely. “He writes of simple subjects in a simple conversational style and so has endeared himself to the masses; but the learned few also find in him such food for thought, and so respect him and admire him. His poetry appeals to all classes of people, for one reason or the other.” A skilful combination of an outer lightness with an inner gravity is one of his major poetic achievements.
A Great Pastoral Poet
Frost is a great pastoral poet. He writes of rural people, occupations, events and situations. The background to his poetry is provided by country-scenes and sights. He writes of rural people and rural occupations and pleasures—apple-picking, gum-gathering, birch-swinging, mowing, hay-collecting—and the language he uses is the simple, colloquial language of country folk. In his poetry, we do not find the city scenery and city people to whom we are used in modern poetry. There are no shop-girls, truck-drivers, factories, trains and buses in his poetry. But the essentials of city life—the note of anxiety, the heart-ache, neurosis and emotional disturbance which characterise life in a big, industrialised city—are all there. Life is basically the same everywhere, and it is this basic element which is brought out by Frost. Frost has succeeded in imparting universal validity and significance to pastoral art.
A Great Regional Poet
Frost is a great regional poet. The region north of Boston forms the background to his poetry. Its people, its scenes and sights, appear and reappear in successive poems, and impart a rare continuity and unity to his works. It is this particular region that Frost has made his own. He loved it and knew it intimately, and this first hand knowledge makes him interpret it so realistically and accurately. Above all, Frost is the poet of the rural New England. He knew every part of this limited world, and he renders it in words with a brilliant, off-hand ease. His characters are all New Englanders, and he has succeeded in capturing the very tone, diction, idiom, and rhythm of Yankee speech. He writes of a particular region, but from the particular he constantly rises to the universal and the general. He writes of the joys and sorrows, loves and hatreds, of the simple Yankees, but he also shows that such joys and sorrows, loves and hatreds are common to all humanity. Regionalism in his hands acquires a universal appeal.
His Originality as a Nature-poet
Frost is a great nature-poet. He writes of the natural scenes and sights, flora and fauna, hills and dales, of the region which lie north of Boston. Like Wordsworth, his love of nature is limited to nature in a particular district. But unlike Wordsworth, he loves both her pleasant and unpleasant aspects. He enjoys her sensuous beauty, but he is also alive to much that is harsh, bleak and barren in her. He does not shut his eye to her harshness and cruelty. His approach is realistic. He was a working farmer and no working farmer can be romantic about nature. As W.H. Auden has pointed out, Frost’s, “Poems on natural objects are always concerned with them not as fact for mystical mediation or starting points for fantasy, but as things with which, and on which, man acts in the course of the daily work of gaining a livelihood.” He does not find any ‘holy plan’ at work in nature, nor does he regard her as a kindly mother watching benevolently over man. In his view, Nature and man are two separate principles, and it is futile to search for friendship in the external world. He constantly emphasizes the difference, rather than the similarity, between man and nature. In both Two Look at Two and The Most of It, creatures of nature look at man from a distance and that is all. There are no other signs of love, friendship and sympathy. Inseparable barriers divide man from Nature.
His Greatness as a Poet of Man
Though Frost is a great nature-poet, he is still greater as a poet of man. As Untermeyer tells us, “Robert Frost has written on almost every subject. He has illuminated things as common as a wood pile and as uncommon as a prehistoric people, as natural as a bird singing in its sleep and as mechanistic as the revolt of a factory worker. But his central subject is humanity. His poetry lives with a particular aliveness because it expresses living people. Other poets have written about people. But Robert Frost’s poems are the people; they work and walk about and converse, and tell their stories with the freedom of common speech. “People in Frost’s books are all rural New Englanders. He knew them intimately and his portrayal of them is realistic and vivid. Writes Marcus Conliffe in this connection, “his poetry has cropped out of his farmer’s world, every part of which he knows, and knows how to render it in words with a brilliant, off-hand ease. His reticent, poor, dignified New Englanders are evoked in monologues, a little like those of E.A. Robinson, or of Robert Browning, but with a difference. His people speak cautiously and intervals of silence, making each word count. Valuability would be alien to them. They do not go on and on, as in Robinson, or explode, as in Browning. Their lonely farms, the cold winters and all-to-brief summers; the imminence of failure, of the wilderness, of death—all give one the sense of people loving tensely. The tension comes out in the poetry and the moments of relaxation have by contrast an almost extravagant gaiety. The hardl-hood, to repeat, is that of life in New Hampshire, as such, not that imposed by the poet, though, of course, Frost describes it with a professional mastery.” Frost’s range or characters are beyond his range, and he shows great artistic self-restraint in staying within his range. But working within his range, he achieves great vividness, diversity and subtlety.
Alienation, His Major Theme
Frost pictures man as a stranger in an indifferent, if not actually hostile, world. Isolated and alienated people abound in his books, more specially in his book of people, North of Boston. Unsurmountable barriers separate man from nature, from God and from his fellow men, and the result is emotional loneliness and isolation, resulting in severe stress and strain, neurosis and mental agitations verging on insanity. Home Burial, The Death of the Hired Man, Hill Wife, etc., are all studies in alienated and maladjusted individuals. Emotional and physical alienation is a major theme in his poetry.
His Rich and Ripe Philosophy
There is no doubt that Frost takes a rather bleak and gloomy view of man’s earthly existence, but he cannot be condemned as a pessimist merely for this reason. In fact, he is a realist and an ameliorist. He is realistic enough to recognise the ills to which flesh is heir to. He does not shut his eyes to the evil, sorrow and suffering which beset man’s life on this earth. Such a recognition is necessary, if human lot is to be bettered and improved. His approach is never cynical and nihilistic; he does never suggest that the life is not worth living or that it would have been better not to have been born at all. He loves the world as it is, Birches expresses his attitude to a nicety. He, “would like to get away from earth awhile”, but then he must return to earth, for,
…… Earth is the right place for love
I do not know where it is likely to go better,
Human lot may be hard but it can be made bearable by doing one’s duty, sincerely and devotedly, by recognising the otherness of other individuals, and by faith in divine Mercy. His approach to life and its problems is sane and healthy; his philosophy is ripe and mature.
Frosts is a traditionalist and a classicist. His conservatism is seen in his suspicion of new ideas and innovations. His pre-occupation with country scenes and sight and with simple rural folk links him up with the romantic-Georgian tradition in poetry. He uses the Iambic metre, because most English poetry has been cast in this measure. Though his metres are varied, they are at first glance quite orthodox. He uses the speech of New England but not so as to jolt the reader. The city—that intoxicating theme for the writer of his time—has no place in his work. He is the countryman, with the countryman’s apparent conservatism; for rural life, with its heavy seasonal rhythm of growth and decay, imposes its own continuity on those who live amongst it.
Frost is a classicist in his habit of understatement and self-restraint. He says what he has to say in the fewest possible words, and the result is classic terseness and concentration. Many of his lines are epigrammatic and are frequently quoted. He is a classicist in the formal finish and perfection of his verse, as well as in his simplicity and austerity. His poems of rural life, scenes and sights, breathe the very spirit of the pastorals of Theocratus and Virgil. He is a classicist in his reticent manner, proverbial wisdom, and his habit of reflecting and moralising.
As a Lyricist
Though Frost has left behind him a number of excellent philosophical and narrative poems, his genius was essentially lyrical. Lawrence Thompson rightly points out: “His (Frost’s) primary artistic achievement, which is an enviable one, in spite of shortcomings, rests on his blending of thought and emotion and symbolic imagery within the confines of the lyric.” His lyrics have the simplicity, brevity and intensity which characterise the lyric at its best. The lyrics in The Boys Will are subjective and personal and in them the young poet’s moods find a spontaneous expression. But more characteristic of him is the dramatic lyric, the Browning type dramatic monologue or dialogue. Home Burial, The Death of the Hired Man, Two Tramps in Mud Time, reveal Frost’s mastery over this type. When at his best, Frost is able to combine a serious philosophical theme with a light-hearted, humorous manner, often his lyrics begin with a simple idea or situation, the full implications of which are revealed as the lyric develops, often by the use of rich and varied symbols. The lyrical magic of such lyrics as Stopping by Woods, Neither Out Far, Nor in Deep, The Peaceful Shepherd, etc., has been noted and admired by all readers of Frost.
Even the greatest have their faults and Frost is no exception in his respect. More glaring of his shortcomings may be listed as follows:
(1) He is an unequal poet. He has left behind him many an excellent poem, but also many others which are not so good. Like Wordsworth, he continued to write even when inspiration flagged, and the result is work, inferior and trivial.
(2) He showed a tendency to moralise from the very beginning and the tendency grew upon him with the passing of time. In his later poems, his didacticism becomes too obtrusive and offensive.
(3) His range of characterisation is limited to rural New Englanders. It does not include complex human type such as intellectuals. Moreover, he does not probe into the depths; we do not get from him those penetrating psychological studies and soul-dissections which are the hall-mark of modernity.
(4) Malcolm Cowley criticises Frost for his economic, social, ethical, political views, and regards his views as shallow and conservative. “Frost is opposed to innovations of all kinds, and is contemptuous of every thing Russian. He strongly disapproves of Russians of all kinds, the pessimistic Russians, the revolutionary Russians, the collectivistic Russians, and the five-year planning Russians. He revolts against the possibility of New England adopting any good or bad feature of the Russian programme.”
(5) He displays mid Victorian prudery in matters of sex. All his characters are decently clothed, and all his love-affairs are etherealised and intellectualised. His reference to adultery are cautious. Sex is never frankly and freely treated.
(6) He makes no difference between separateness and self-centredness. In his poems, the passions of the New Englanders are diverted into narrow-channels. According to Malcolm Cowley, In Two Tramps in Mud Time there is neither Christian charity nor brotherhood. It makes the learned critic vaguely uncomfortable.
(7) In the view of Frederic I. Carpenter, Frosts philosophy lack depth and profundity. “The fault of Mr. Frost lies merely in this—that he is a poet, only. His criticism of life is merely poetic. He has not the cosmic imagination which creates its own world.” Frist’s world is fragmentary and meaningless. It is, in his own words, “the vast chaos of all I have lived through.”
(8) His poetry does not offer us any coherent message or vision of life. He does not clarify and illuminate. At the most, he offers only a momentary stay against confusion. His poetry suffers from a basic uncertainty and indecisiveness.
(9) According to Yvor Winters, he is a, “spiritual drifter”, who, “puts on the reader a burden of critical intelligence which ought to be born by the poet” Thus in the Road Not Taken no choice is made, and clear path is indicated. The poet is vague and uncertain, as if afraid to come to a decision and make a choice.
(10) Often he treats serious subjects in a casual light-hearted fashion, and the result is comic and ridiculous, rather than serious. For example, in the poem The Egg and the Machine, the locomotive obviously symbolises the evil of machinery, and the traveller, in order to express his disapproval of it, throws turtle eggs at it. “The turtle-egg, of course, may have a symbolic significance: it is plasm, raw life, and therefore, capable of confounding the mechanical product of human reform. But the locomotive does not just represent human reason, it is something created by human reason to facilitate higher activities. There is nothing either of wisdom or of greatness in a turtle egg. As we analyse the symbolism, the poem is reduced to a feeble joke.” The title of one of his poems, A Serious Step Lightly Taken is suggestive. Comments Yvor Winters, “but if serious steps are to be lightly taken, then poetry, at least, is impoverished, and the poet can have very little to say. Most of the world’s great poetry has had to do with serious steps seriously taken. And when the seriousness goes from life, it goes from the poetry.” The fact is that Frost had only a lover’s quarrel with the world, and, therefore, his criticism of it is half-hearted and halting. It does not go far enough. As a matter of fact, “it is no criticism at all.” Therefore, the learned critic calls him, “the poet of the minor theme, the casual approach, and the discreetly eccentric attitude.”
(11) He relies too much on instinct and impulse and ridicules the, “reasoning man” as in The Bear. But if man is guided by his impulses, he would be like the caged bear. But man has advanced from the level of the beasts by subordinating his instincts and impulses to reason. To be guided by instinct alone would be a retrograde step. In Yvor Winter’s opinion, in this poem Frost is satirising the intelligent man from the point of view of the unintelligent. The more one studies the poem, the more trivial and ridiculous it seems. Further, the learned critic points out, Frost is guilty of self-contradiction and inconsistency when in The White-Tailed Hornet he shows that the hornet is mistaken even when it acts on instinct.
(12) Frost’s habit of instituting, “downward comparison”, is a degradation of the human race. He constantly compares main to animals and trees and finds much that is animal and vegetable inhuman nature.
Such are Frost’s shortcomings, but they do not direct even a little from his real greatness. He may not be so great a poet as, say Shakespeare, but he is certainly a distinguished and valuable poet. He has certainly earned a place of distinction, at home and abroad, as a major American poet.