Why we must not forget Robert Frost when we read modern poetry. He made the everyday extraordinary
Shorn of the flourish of rhetoric, treading close to prose, Frost’s poetry is a true hallmark of the undramatic modern.
The modern age beginning with the year 1880, witnessed the emergence of many great poets, writers and artists like Eliot, Pound, Rilke, Kafka, Lawrence, James, Picasso and Matisse, who all had one thing in common – they endeavoured to break existing traditions. This change was modernism, which slowly transited into postmodernism after the 1950s.
Robert Frost belonged to the turbulent age which saw millions of people perish during the two great wars. Frost’s Mending Wall, written in 1914, explores a very ordinary incident – repairing the stone wall that stands between the speaker’s and his neighbour’s garden. The speaker in the poem keeps thinking, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, his neighbour, however, believes in his father’s saying: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The speaker questions his neighbour’s point of view by asserting that land should be shared with trust and need no fences. He dislikes walls because they give him a sense of being “walled in” or “walled out”.
Prose into poetry
Since the poem was composed in 1914, it can also be analysed as Frost’s response to the outbreak of the First World War. The poem also seems to suggest that this distrust and sensibility of building walls and fences are due to the war. Its beauty lies in the way Frost uses the rhythms of speech in his trademark colloquial tone.
Frost’s father was a journalist and his Scottish mother was a poetess. He developed an interest in poetry due to his mother, who influenced his poetry greatly – she introduced him to the Romantics and New England poets. When Frost began writing poetry early on, it was without any sort of recognition. His dulcet poetry, written mostly to expose the character of a fictional speaker, seems effortless. He adapted the language of prose and turned it into poetry. This deliberate pruning of poetic embellishments helped him give birth to a new voice for the modern poet.
William Wordsworth in Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) had explained how he had experimented with “the real language of men” by arranging it in metrical disposition. It seems reasonable to say that Frost gave an approbation to this statement of Wordsworth, and developed an idiosyncratic, spare and clean style of his own, which employed the use of ordinary language.
His poetry has a close affinity with nature and more often than not he uses ordinary objects to suggest something profound. His poem “Lodged” is a great example:
The rain to the wind said,
“You push and I’ll pelt.”
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged – though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.
The poet as distinct from his poetry
A poem is a work of art; it’s not an affidavit of sorts with which we can judge a poet. All poetry is the creation of an object which is entirely separate from its creator. In his artistic pursuits, a poet often discards his own identity and keeps aside his opinions. As TS Eliot rightly puts it: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
Goethe had explained a poet’s situation very aptly when he wrote of himself: “My work is that of a composite being, which happens to be signed.” Many readers in bemusement end up considering poems as expressions of opinion or autobiographical anecdotes of their creators, bereft of the knowledge that poetry is nothing but an emotional statement of its creator. Frost himself had written about this: “Poets stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them, like burrs when they walk in the fields.”
It would thus be inaccurate to attach Frost’s poetry with his outlook of life. He looks at life in a manner that is not only poetic but practical as well. The concluding lines of “Birches” elucidate this remarkable coalesce. In the poem, the speaker is expressing a desire “to get away from earth awhile”, only to return to start afresh:
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Throughout his oeuvre, Frost has time and again transformed commonplace scenes and situations into something deeply convincing. His mastery lies in how he used the daily activities of his farming – mowing, apple-picking, mending a wall – as inspiration for his poetry. For instance, the descriptive lines that we find in After Apple Picking have a perfection that seems to be the only way of describing the dream that the speaker feels coming on.
Frost’s superior diction is evident in the magnificent concluding lines of his famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
In this poem, his exemplary ear for the cadences of speech and astounding handling of nature is quite apparent. Many critics have ascribed the last stanza of the poem as the “death wish” on part of the poet. However, equally evident in the poem is a stronger suggestion of self-determination.
Similarly, one of Frost’s most widely read works, “The Road Not Taken”, has been the subject of debate for many of his readers. The poem, which Frost himself termed as “a tricky poem”, in a sense, seemingly celebrates individualism by suggesting that one should take the road less travelled for success. However, this poem can be interpreted in a different meaning altogether when we analyse it in the light of Frost’s assertion that he made later that the two roads are “really about the same.” We are also uncertain whether the “sigh” in the memorable last stanza of the poem is of grief or relief:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
From dismissal to acclaim
The attitude of the poetry-reading public toward Frost’s art in his early years as a poet was not very encouraging. When his collections of poems, A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914) appeared – containing many intensely emotional poems – he was categorised as another “cold New England Poet who saw everything in black and white” in England. In America, he was seen not as a poet at all.
But Frost’s talents were soon recognised and he managed to establish his reputation. Despite the simplicity of his poetry, critics began to view him as a major poet in the later years. His fellow Americans who had rejected his verses as plain began to admire him as well. Between 1924 and 1943, Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on four occasions. In 1961, John F Kennedy, a long-time admirer of Frost and his work, invited him to read one of his poems at his presidential inauguration. This was the first time in American history that a poet had taken part in the ceremony. Although Frost had written a poem, “Dedication”, for the occasion, he recited The Gift Outright from memory instead because he had troubled reading the faintly typed poem in the blazing sun.
Behind Frost’s characteristic voice is an undertone, in which we can sense a deep devotion for his art, the simplicity of his verses giving his poems a stability and honesty. Another remarkable quality about Frost, who died in 1963, is how he established his moorings far away from the big American cities – close to the earth, in regional America. His poetry dealing with immemorial farming activities – calm and stoical – gives us a picture of the poet’s ardent rapport with nature and his commitment to daily life at his farm.