Robert Frost 1874 – 1963
Frost was born in California but moved to the east coast shortly after his father died when Robert was ten. His family moved a lot, changing schools until he went to Dartmouth College for few months, working in a textile mill before going to Harvard in 1897 – after two years he left without a degree. He had married Elinor White in 1895. His grandfather bequeathed him a small farm in New Hampshire as long as he stayed ten years – he stayed 11. Besides farming he taught and wrote poetry. He sold the farm and went to live in England where he became recognised as a great writer with his first book, A Boy’s Will.
Famous when he returned to America in 1915, he settled in Vermont, giving lectures and poetry readings. Private correspondence reveals a family life beset by tragedy, pettiness and pride – life a survival of the fittest but he never gave way to grief in public.
While attracted to the Romantic traditions, Frost was more realistic about the power of nature and bleaker in outlook. His poetry is fairly traditional and conservative though he did prefer the vernacular to the erudite or formal language and experimented with metrical liberties. His poetry is grounded in reality.
“I never dared to be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.
Frost writes pastoral poetry dealing with the day to day living of ordinary people, simple folksy people on the land. It is rural, bucolic poetry, close to nature. Rather than academic, it is full of homespun philosophy.
Also traditional and conservative in poetic technique, he rejected modernisms, with little innovation in style and metrical variations.
- Images – simple, but can be dark, sinister, horrifying, ominously foreboding.
“Poetry is above all metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another”
- Lyrical - Frost is a master of rhythm – variation committed to making music through sound patterns that reinforce the subject and enhance the sense of meaning. His metrical virtuosity aids meaning and dramatizes scenes. This is one area in which he is not afraid to experiment with an irregularity of accent across the regular beat of metre.
“Verse libre, within a taut frame. "Free verse is like playing tennis without a net”
- Suggestive – not didactic - Frost implies things and asks the right questions but refuses to give us his answers – perhaps because there are no absolute answers.
“My poems are set to trip the reader’s head most foremost into the boundless, into the dark”
- Words, symbols, images, are riddled with equivocation, nuance, and connotations. He playfully and mischievously delineates the paradoxes, the absurdities and the ironies of life by subtle restrained and controlled satire. Philosophical views are played off against each other rather than presented definitively or dogmatically. Frost moves from observation to reflection to mischievous pondering over life’s mysteries but seldom provides conclusive arguments; he leaves the conclusions up to the reader:
It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling
To get adapted to my kind of fooling.
- Tone - confident and authoritative, but full of sardonic irony. Sometimes uses biblical tone and diction.
- Diction and syntax – Frost captures the speech cadences of rustic or country people but control it with emotional tones on various levels. Later in career he abandons poetic diction for the vernacular; speech patterns that turn prosaic, rustic American idioms into sentence sounds that become poetic.
- Anecdotal - Frost seems to be present in most of his poetry evidenced by the personal pronouns, “I, my and mine”. While not necessarily biographical, he adopts a conversational, colloquial and narrative approach, talking directly to his readers.
- Figures of Speech – Synecdoche is his preferred: “to keep the life from spilling"
- Nature – Frost followed some of the Romantic traditions, but his depiction of nature is much more realistic; it is not necessarily benevolent but can be pitiless, even dark, evil or malignant. – Spring Pools, Mending Wall
Nature within her inmost self divides
To trouble men with having to take sides
- Discontinuity - Nothing Gold can Stay – flux – this is juxtaposed with faith, love and routine. Rural backdrops present scenes of emptiness and simple struggles for loyalty that provide examples of inner assertions to reach across the emptiness – Has God withdrawn?
- Conflict between the private individual needs and our social communal ones. Both fruitful affection and dependence but also self-respecting and self - reliant independence balancing one another. Public and social commitments played off against individual, private, solitary and family needs.
- Knowledge – we can never know anything for certain.
We dance round in a ring and suppose
But the secret sits in the middle and knows.
- Simple observations on everyday matters – often leading to complex profound imponderables. Some poems have the simplicity a child can grasp, yet they end up with possibilities that could confound a sage. His suggestive meanings plumb fathomless depths. Often he eludes us by contradiction – paradox. “life is a mystery to be lived; not a problem to be solved” Ghandi
Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on thee
And I’ll forgive thy great big one on me.
Quotes from Frost’s Poetic theories and the creative process.
- A poem begins in delight, inclines to the impulse; it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification- but a momentary stay against confusion.
- A poem is an individual’s venture and vision rising as a creative defence against emptiness. Desert Places
- Space ails us all; we have too much space. "We are either nothing or God’s regret".
- Sight and insight are the whole business of the poet. Poetry consists primarily of dynamic interaction and transformation of:
seeing seeing into
image after image
sensory faculties intellectual, emotional and psychic resolutions
- Science and Metaphor: We attempt to say one thing in terms of another. Matter in terms of spirit. Spirit in terms of matter. Physical existence in terms of Spiritual essence. All metaphor breaks down somewhere. The trick is to know how far you can carry it before it breaks. The peak performance of metaphor is in reaching for ultimate knowledge; when metaphor links the physical and the spiritual
Now that I am old, my teachers are the young
What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung
I strain at lessons, fit to start a suture
I go to school to youth to learn the future.
Let chaos storm
Let cloud shapes form
I wait for form
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