Timothy Muller's Reviews > The Poetry of Robert Frost

The Poetry of Robert Frost by Robert Frost
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It may seem strange to allot only four stars to such a great poet. However, for me, there are (more or less) two Frosts. Actually, there are three Frosts, but the third is not a very important consideration.

To take the third first, this is the Frost of lighter, often satirical poetry, as in, for example “A Case for Jefferson.” This kind of verse is not really Frost’s strong suit and I think his reputation might rest a little higher had he not published it. However, virtually all poets publish material not quite worthy of them and few readers hold that against them.

More typically though, Frost has two modes of writing: 1) rhymed verse with tauter rhythms, and 2) the generally much looser blank verse. I often like the first very much; indeed consider the best of his lyrics to be among the finest lyrical poetry in the language. There are very few poets to have written so many lyrics of such high quality. For the second mode, the blank verse (usually, not always) I can find very little affection.

It is important to note that in the first type (the rhymed verse as a opposed to the looser blank verse) is often symbolic, using harvest, night, sea, woodland paths, and other symbols to suggest larger (if vaguer) meaning. The blank verse is often quite literal. Poems like “Death of a Hired Hand” or “Home Burial” read more like short stories than poetry. And the blank verse lines, drifting so often from the strict iambic pentameter, lines do not gather energy. Blank verse is a very difficult medium for poetry in English. One must be extremely gifted to use it. Only Shakespeare’s and Tennyson’s really work for me, and these are two of the very best at handling the English language. Frost (along with Wordsworth e.g.) fails to bring it to life for me.

To illustrate, I will contrast two poems - “Home Burial” and “Acquainted with the Night.” Both are very dark poems.

First “Home Burial:” The poem involves the misunderstandings between a husband and wife following the death and burial (by the husband) of their child. I think that we have to admit that we are involved with two pretty dense people. The emotion is not nuanced; it is raw and even simplistic. Take the following where the husband finally realizes that his child’s burial mound can be seen from a window at which his wife has been seen looking out numerous times:

“‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.”’

A husband who does not know that his child’s grave can be seen from one of the home’s
windows is not credible - it really isn’t; the wife’s apprehension of things is hardly better:

“‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care!’”

She cannot understand that the unfortunate and pressing business of life goes on, that we cannot, in the normal course of events, stop to give things, including grief, their proper due. This is little more believable than her husbands obtuseness. Painful and absurd as this seems, intelligent women understand it. Nor can she grasp that the husband’s mourning goes on at a different level from her own.

And the situation is too specific. Unless own happens to have had the same experience, we tend to remain uninvolved; we are placed in an uncomfortable voyeuristic position. I cannot but feel that this is closer to soap opera than poetry.

In addition, the lines in “Home Burial” so often deviate from the normative iambic pentameter that in my perception it is really not poetry at all. And when the meter returns to the strict iambic pentameter, is often feels forced and sometimes awkward. Frost is sometimes credited with having broken down the meter as a sort of analogy to the breaking down of the communication of husband and wife; but if the crumbling of communication means crumbling of prosody, then what we have is prose.

On the other hand “Acquainted with the Night” is a true work of art and a poem to which almost anyone can relate because it is communicated symbolically. There are none but the very fortunate and the self deluding sentimentalist who are not acquainted with the “night.” Here are the last three stanzas of the poem:

“I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.”

The “night” is almost psychotically bleak. A cry is heard from streets away - is it real or an hallucination? in any case it’s terrifyingly hostile. The clock, normatively a helpful product of a coherent society is of no use; instead it is apparently a sinister, glaring eye.

Any yet (and I consider this very important) the rhyme and controlled meter stand for coherence and meaning in which even the darkest place has a context, has a place in the scheme of things. There is a reason for the expression “neither rhyme nor reason.” Here we have rhyme (and more generally a prosody) which functions as a stand-in for reason, which however unavailable in the midst of the torment, is nevertheless insisted upon (albeit indirectly) by the poet. This is something poetry can do, that is, placing life’s varied and confusing events in some sort of context; indeed, it is one of its major functions, and Frost does it very well. The symbolic, as opposed to literal, representation allows for reverberating meaning and multiple context.

To take one more brief example of what Frost does so well - from “A Prayer in Spring:”

“Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.”

How simple and unassuming is the verse at a literal level; yet how rich, replete with meaning, hopeful and ominous at once.
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Finished Reading
December 27, 2013 – Shelved

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