HE507, Honors Seminar on Robert Frost
(Spring Term, 2002)

"A momentary stay against confusion"—that's Robert Frost's definition of poetry.  And that definition applies equally well to his poetry as seen against the background of modernism.  Frost stuck with the traditional forms when all around him poets experimented with free verse and fragmented, discontinuous forms.  He seemed to address the popular imagination when other poets such as Pound, Eliot, and Stevens, for instance, pushed their verse in a more academic direction.  And yet the simple, conversational surface of Frost's poems conceals an extraordinarily rich understanding of the complexity of human experience and particularly of the human capacity for self-deception.  At the same time, his folksy public persona hides the opportunistic careerist and angrily ambitious man Frost could be.  This seminar provides an opportunity for instructor and students to explore together these intriguing, sometimes troubling oppositions in Frost's life and works.

P  O  S  T  I  N  G  S
1.  Link to  Sample Two-Page Paper
2.  Link to  Summary Paper on Reception of A Boy's Will
3.  Link to  Sample Two-Page Paper #2
4.  Link to  Summary Paper on Critical Reception of North of Boston--Kirkpatrick
5.  Link to  Possible Paper Topics
6.  Link to  Websites Related to Frost
7.  Link to  North of Boston Two-Page Paper--Kirkpatrick
8.  Link to  Mountain Interval Two-Page Paper--Dessureault
9.  Link to  Summary Paper on Critical Reception of Mountain Interval--Dessureault
10. Link to Passage Review--21 Feb
11. Link to Frost's Sonnets by the Numbers
12. Link to Summary Paper on Critical Reception of New Hampshire--Lewis-Gonzalez
13. Link to List and Brief Descriptions of Topics for Final Papers
14. Link to New Hampshire Two-Page Paper--Fredericksen
15. Link to Summary Paper on Critical Reception of West-Running Brook--Fredericksen
16. Link to "In White"/"Design"--Brunella, Prunella, Heal-All (thanks to Lyndsay Fredericksen)
17. Link to  Summary Paper on Critical Reception of A Further Range--O'Connor
18. Link to  List of Poems Whose Titles Changed after Initial Publication
19. Link to  West-Running Brook, "A Peck of Gold": Two-Page Paper--Fredericksen
20. Link to  Summary Paper on Critical Reception of A Masque of Reason-- Johnson
21. Link to  Summary Paper on Critical Reception of A Witness Tree--Higgins
22. Link to  A Witness Tree Response: Two-Page Paper--Kirkpatrick
23. Link to  Women and Longing to Escape in Frost's Poetry: Final Paper--Dessureault
24. Link to  Terror and Beauty in "Come In": Two-Page Paper--Higgins
25. Link to  Nature as Human in Frost's Poetry: Two-Page Paper--Lewis-Gonzalez
26. Link to  A Further Range of Understanding: Two-Page Paper--O'Connor
27. Link to  The Split Personality of A Boy's Will: Two-Page Paper--Johnson
28. Link to  Diving Deep Into "November": Two-Page Paper--Johnson
29. Link to  The Rebellious Cave-Men of A Witness Tree: Two-Page Paper--Lewis-Gonzalez
30. Link to  A Steeple on the House: Two-Page Paper --Higgins
31. Link to  Why a Steeple Bush?: Final Paper-- Higgins
32. Link to  Women and Longing to Escape: Final Paper--Dessureault
33. Link to  Sexual Name Mauling in New Hampshire: Final Paper--Johnson
34. Link to  The Gothic in Robert Frost's Poetry: Final Paper--Kirkpatrick
35. Link to  Frost's Diety: Two-Page Paper--O'Connor
36. Link to  To E.F. and Frost's God: Final Paper--O'Connor
37. Link to  Death in the Life of Robert Frost and His Poetry: Final Paper--Lewis-Gonzalez
38. Link to  Kay Morrison and A Witness Tree: Final Paper--Fredericksen
39. Link to  Robert Frost, Poet of Contradictions: Two-Page Paper--Dessureault

Text
Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (Library of America)

Reserved Texts, Nimitz Library
Jeffrey Cramer, Robert Frost Among His Poems:  A Literary Companion
Arnold Grade, ed., The Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost
The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer
Jay Parini, Robert Frost:  A Life
Richard Poirer, Robert Frost:  The Work of Knowing
William Pritchard, Frost:  A Literary Life Reconsidered
Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost (3 Vols.)
Jack Tharpe, ed., Frost: Centennial Essays (I,II, and III)
Wagner, Robert Frost:  The Critical Reception

Syllabus
Please note that the following syllabus lays out a schedule of readings, topics, and activities for class sessions.  I will expect you to be prepared for those sessions.  However, do not see it as a restraint on your roaming freely throughout the Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, or as a check against your bringing up in class the matters that interest you.  In fact, I assume that you will read way ahead of this schedule, following your interests and checking out ideas you have, ideas discussed in class that intrigue you, or some of the thirty-seven listed below as possible paper topics.  This syllabus also includes links to 20 or so Websites related to Frost, some more useful than others, but all contributing, I think, to your understanding of Frost and how he is "taken" by various readers.
 
WEEK DAY            READINGS      TOPICS AND ACTIVITIES
WK1 Jan 7 Introduction to Course, or "Roasting Chestnuts" Discuss "The Road Not Taken"
Jan 8 A Boy's Will Meaning of Table of Contents Notes, see 968-69
Jan 10 A Boy's Will, cont.;  "Chronology," 929-38 Critical Reception (Report--O'Brien); Frost's Diction
WK 2 Jan 14  A Boy's Will, cont. Themes:  Nature, "Vagrancy," Self and Other, etc.
Jan 15 Review; "The Figure a Poem Makes," 776-78 Poetic Forms, Diction
Jan 17 North of Boston (first four poems); "A Preface to 'A Way Out,'" 713 Dramatic Poems
WK 3 Jan 21 NO CLASS--KING'S BIRTHDAY
Jan 22 North of Boston (finish); "To Untermeyer," 702-04 Critical Reception (Report--Kirkpatrick); Regionalism
Jan 24 North of Boston (emphasis on "The Wood Pile") 
"Chronology," 938-40
Themes:  Walls, Homes, Men and Men, Men and Women, Form, etc
WK 4 Jan 28 Read around in prose selections, 664-86 Frost's Notion of the "Sound of Sense"
Jan 29 Open Preliminary Discussion of Topics for Major Paper
Jan 31 Mountain Interval (finish) Critical Reception (Report--Dessureault); "Intervale"
WK 5 Feb  4 Mountain Interval
"Chronology," 940-42
"The Road Not Taken" and "The Sound of the Trees" as thematic bookends?
Feb  5 Mountain Interval Love, Passion, Violence; Variety of Poetic Forms
Feb  7 Review
WK 6 Feb 11 New Hampshire (read the title poem and sketch of book's lay-out as described in "Notes," 971) Robert Frost vs. T.S. Eliot, or New Hampshire as Parody?  Enter Frost the political poet.
Feb 12 New Hampshire (read 162-203) Science, Art, the Supernatural, "Riddles"
Feb 14 New Hampshire ("Grace Notes," 203-23) Range of meaning and play in Frost; testing F's "sentence sounds" against his own poems.
WK 7 Feb 18 NO CLASS--PRESIDENTS' DAY
Feb 19 New Hampshire (emphasis on "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," 223) Critical Reception (Report--Lewis-Gonzalez)
Feb 21 Review; "Chronology," 942-44 Politics, Religion, and Art;  Passage Review
WK 8 Feb 25 "Education by Poetry," 717-28 Major Paper Proposals Due (Link to Proposed Topics
Feb 26 West-Running Brook (finish) Critical Reception ( Report--Fredericksen)
Feb 28 West-Running Brook The lyrical "bard?"
WK 9 Mar  4 Review; "Introduction to 'King Jasper,'" 741-48 Thematic Unity in WRB?
Mar  5 Frost's Sonnets;  F's Sonnets by the Numbers F's Exploration and Expansion of Sonnet Forms
Mar  7 Frost's Sonnets, cont. Form as "Life Theme" in Frost
WK10 NO CLASS--SPRING BREAK
WK11 Mar 18 A Further Range Critical Reception ( Report--O'Connor); Volume's Arrangement
Mar 19 A Further Range (especially 275-77; and 977-78) Design, the "Fall," God and Humans
Mar 21 Review; "Chronology," 945-47; "Letter to 'The Amherst Student,'" 739-40; "To Kimball Flaccus," 716 Themes:  Action vs. Words; Containment; Utopia; Art as Essential
WK12 Mar 25 A Witness Tree (301-12); "Chronology," 947-50 Volume's Concept; Grief
Mar 26 A Witness Tree (finish) Critical Reception ( Report--Higgins)
Mar 28 Review Inventory of Themes; Reflections on Form
WK13 Apr  1 Open
Apr  2 A Masque of Reason Critical Reception ( Report--Johnson); Frost, the OT Christian
Apr  4 A Masque of Mercy; "Poverty and Poetry," 759-67 Critical Reception;  Justice vs. Mercy
WK14 Apr  8  Steeple Bush (first seven poems); "Chronology," 950-55 Old Motifs Carrying Religion & Nationalism
Apr  9 Steeple Bush (finish) Critical Reception 
Apr 11 Review What to Make of a Diminished Thing?
WK15 Apr 15 In the Clearing "Waste," "Passionate Preference"
Apr 16 In the Clearing Critical Reception; Spirit's Quest of the Material
Apr 18 Review;  "The Constant Symbol," 786-91
WK16 Apr 22, 
23, 25
A Week of Review, Reflection, and Work on Papers 
Read "Paris Review Interview," 873-93 
Due Date for Major Paper:  Apr 29
Frost's Reputation 
The Major Themes of His Poetry 
First Impressions and Last Impressions?

Notes on Goals, Policies, Grading, and Requirements

1.  Goals.  To go beyond the routine appreciation of many of Frost's poems and of his body of poetry and to achieve a critically informed, nuanced appreciation of his works, one shaped not only by close reading but also by biographical, political, and literary contexts.

2.  Instruction.  Discussion shared equally among students and teacher.

3.  Assignments and Grading.
"Critical reception" report; short writings, contribution to seminar . . . . roughly 25% of final grade
Two short papers (2 pages), each on a volume of F' poetry . . . . . . . . roughly 25% of final grade
Major paper of about 15-20 pages (see possible topics) . . . . . . . . . . roughly 50% of final grade



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Links to Websites Related to Frost

These sites offer, at best, some glimpses of Frost, his family, his homes, and the work of J.J. Lankes, his illustrator.  They also describe the various holdings of Frost material.  The Huntington Library in San Marino,CA, one important site not included here, does not provide any online description of its collection of Frost's books, manuscripts, and letters.

1.  University of New Hampshire. Frost Collection. Lists holdings and offers a short biography.

2.  University of Virginia Frost Exhibit from 1996. University of Virginia Frost Exhibition from 1996. Rich collection
    of photographs online.

3.  Academy of American Poets--Frost site.  Academy of American Poets site.   General, but provides some useful links.

4.   Frost Friends of Shaftsbury.  Interesting  mainly for its photographs of Frost homes.

5.   Clifton Waller Library of UVA.  List of holdings.

6.   Lankes' West-Running Brook.  Nice display of a woodcuts by Frost's friend and illustrator.

7.   Lankes and Frost Exhibit  Description of past exhibition at Vanderbilt U. that contains three woodcuts by Lankes.

8.   Jones Library of Amherst.  Describes an extensive Frost collection.

9.   University of Maryland Frost Collection.   Describes special collection of Frost material.

10.  Amherst Walking Tour.  Provides several useful links to other sources.

11.  Amherst College Library.  Information on the Robert Frost Memorial Library and its holdings.

12.  Trinity College Library.  List of Frost manuscript and rare book holdings at Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

13.  Muger Library, Boston University.  Describes BU's Frost collection.  Includes photo of draft of "Cabin in the Clearing."

14.  Muger Library Exhibit.  Describes exhibit, "The Less Traveled Road," in Special Collection Library.

15.  Frost and Lankes.  W.D. Taylor lecture, with six Lankes woodcuts (just click on the miniatures within the text).

16.  Lankes Woodcut of Shaftsbury Farm.

17.  Edited Typescript Page from Education by Poetry.

18.   The Nature of New England.Frost related pictures and tidbits.

19.   Modern American Poetry Page. Pictures and links related to Frost.

20.   EducETH Page on Frost.  Secondary school level, but offers a nice collection of material, including photographs.

21.   MS of The Gift Outright and Brief Summary of Kennedy Inauguration   The Library of Congress's display.

22.   Dartmouth College Frost Collection The most extensive collection of Frost notebooks.

23.   "In White"/"Design"--Brunella, Prunella, Heal-All--Wellesly College's Web of Species page on the Heal-All



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Possible Topics for HE507 Papers on Frost

Each of these is just a "topic," not a thesis.  It points to an area of interest, tension, or trouble in Frost's poetry/career/life out of which you might be able to make something—an argument or claim—that will help us to understand even more completely Frost's work.

1.  Animals in Frost's poetry.

2.  Allegory in Frost.  Theodore Spenser, for instance, in his New Republic, 58 (Feb 20, 1929) review of West-Running Book complains that Frost gives in to "an allegorizing method which is far less important" than his approach in his former books of poetry.

3.  Women in Frost's poetry and career.  All sorts of avenues here, including of course his relationship with his mother and or wife, not to mention, of course, the way women function in his poems.

4.  Work.  Is "Mowing" in fact the definitive view of this topic, or does it have more to it?  An interesting topic from a man who frequently stylized himself as lazy, as having to succumb to the extravagant waste of inactivity in order  to produce anything.

5.  Philosophical, religious concept of design.

6.  Politics.

7.  Utopia.

8.  Eden or depictions/allusions to Paradise.  It could easily be argued that Frost's most frequently addressed subject is Eden.

9.  Punning.  One approach here is to explore the question of how the really subtle punning that Frost does coincides with his strongly oral sense of poetry, with his notion of sentence sounds and his "saying" his poems at readings rather than reading them.

10.  Sound of sense.  This coincides somewhat with the topic above.  The question here is not just to understand Frost's theory but to explore the accuracy of the claims he makes for it.  For instance, he often suggested that he was the first to have thought of the idea.  Is this true?  Is it possible to read Frost's poems thoroughly and as he would want you to if you literally adhered to this notion of discovering the meaning of his poems in terms of sentence sounds or tones?  I'm thinking particularly of the ending to "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," where the line(s) seem shaped as sentimentality but clearly mean something quite unsentimental.

11.  Rivers, streams, water in Frost.

12.  Frost and education.  Does his sense of what education aims at drift into his poetry?  How about the contradictions, or apparent contradictions:  anti-academy but lodged most of his life in the academic world or his laissez faire attitude vs. the notion of altering thinking of others as in education.

13.  Frost and war (his war poems, his public and private views of war, etc.).

14.  Heroism and/or courage.

15.  Frost calls his poems "momentary stays against confusion." However, he often unfolds sentences that seem to promote confusion.  He uses double-negatives as often as any poet I've seen. He is also fond of the unclear or indefinite pronoun. What's going on with this sort of unnecessarily difficult or somewhat clouded wording, especially in a poet who seeks directness of expression?

16.  The myth of Narcissus in Frost's poetry, including perhaps Echo. Pygmalion?

17.  Houses and homes.  See Poirer (Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing) for an entre into this topic.

18.  Frost's adherence to traditional forms, but at the same time his play with them.  The sonnet, for example.

19.  The "fall" in Frost's poetry.  (This, of course, relates to #8 above).

20.  Borders—fences, doors, walls, the body—in the poetry and drama.  One could easily write a fascinating essay simply on doors in the poetry (and in his letters).  Also, he often expresses interest in the gaps between things, openings, etc.--the spaces between stars, for instance.  Anything going on here?

21.  Frost's curious escape to the Dismal Swamp.  Where did he get the idea to go there?  How did he frame this event retrospectively?

22.  Frost has been compared to Chaucer as one of the English language's great poets on the subject of marriage.  Look at marriage in the works and life.

23.  Math in the poems.  As in "The Oven Bird" ("He says that leaves are old and that for flowers/Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.").  Does this tendency to count, to set up proportions, to equate constitute a pattern?  If so, what does it mean?

24.  Films on Frost.  Examine the films and develop a notion of their slant, how they display Frost.

25.  Is Frost any help in explaining the meaning of his poems?  What is his attitude toward interpretation by critics?

26.  Frost's illustrator(s).  J.J. Lankes was the primary one, illustrating several poems published individually and also New Hampshire, West-Running Brook, and The Collected Poems.

27.  Frost's sense of the published book as material document.

28.  Escapism.  Frost seemed to object to this term, calling himself a "pursuitist," but he did a lot of escaping, even out the back door/window of his homes ala Major Major in Catch-22.

29.  The theme of loss in Frost's poetry.

30.  Waste.  Frost is fond of this notion that waste is productive.  Is there any change, by the way, that Frost's interest might be related to the title of Eliot's most famous poem?

31.  The sports/games and arts connection in Frost's work and letters.

32.  Take a look at one of Frost's "pet" words other than the waste of # 30 above--say, take, or wild, for instance--and see what you can make of it.

33.  Performances of Frost's plays and/or poems.  Or perhaps what he means exactly by dramatic, as in "Preface to A Way Out."

34.  The market place, or selling and buying in Frost's works.

35.  Science in the poems and masques.

36.  The mentioned but silent--or barely speaking--characters in the poems.

37.  Frost as poet of fear--see L. Trilling, "A Speech on Robert Frost," Partisan Review 26 (Summer 1959: 445-52.

38.  The "guide" in Frost's poem; the Virgil-figure, if you will.  "Directive" and "A Fountain, a Bottle, a Donkey's Ears and Some Books" are two examples.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Cold, White Silence
(A Sample Two Page Paper)

        I've noticed a strand that runs through a number of the poems in A Boy's Will.  The clearest I can be about it at this stage is that it involves silence and the absent, female partner.  In various shades the strand emerges in the following poems:  "Love and a Question,"  "A Late Walk," "Stars," "Wind and Window Flower," "A Prayer in Spring," "Flower-Gathering," "Waiting," "A Dream Pang," and "Revelation."  Even more often than in these cases, the speaker of the poems focuses on a mute object, invests it with meaning, and thus makes words from it.  Based on my experience so far with Frost's poems, I would say that this is the framework for almost all of his poems.  What I'm noticing, though, is the more troubling and resistant silence the speaker faces and identifies in his partner.

        "Wind and Window Flower" and "Flower-Gathering" express this theme most clearly, with "Stars," "Waiting," and "Revelation" not far behind in the intensity with which they develop it.  The ballad like love story of the window flower and the winter breeze, tame though it seems, deals rather harshly with the flower.  Outwardly, of course, the winter breeze is the harsh element, the one "Concerned with ice and snow,/Dead weeds and unmated birds" and the one who "little of love could know."  The window flower is associated with warmth:  "the firelit looking-glass/And warm stove-window light."  But the wind is the one who seeks the attention of the window flower and is finally repulsed, as the tone of the last stanza suggests:
                                            But the flower leaned aside
                                            And thought of naught to say,
                                            And morning found the breeze
                                            A hundred miles away.

Though these are natural entities that are confined to their separate places, this stanza comes very close to suggesting a cause and effect relationship between the silence of the flower in response to the wind and the wind's departure.  "Flower-Gathering" lingers even more over this problem.  The speaker returns at dusk after "the little while" that he has "been long away" from his lover.  He is "Gaunt and dusky gray with roaming" as he approaches her with a bouquet of faded flowers.  His question tells volumes about her apparent disapproval, despite the bouquet:  "Are you dumb because you know me not,/Or dumb because you know?"  Needless to say "dumb" refers to her silence, not her lack of intelligence.

        Even the most cursory reading about the Robert-Elinor Frost (nee White) relationship tells us that her deafening silence drove Frost to distraction.  In fact her cold, curt response to his delivering a bound copy of early poems (Twilight) to her while she, still unmarried to Robert, was a student at St. Lawrence University in New York sent him on a bizarre, self-destructive escape to the Dismal Swamp in Virginia.  In this respect it's not too difficult to see him as the wind and she as the window flower.  And it's difficult not to see Frost's poem about stars as at least in part a way to capture the coldness he often felt from his wife:  ". . . like some snow-white/Minerva's snow-white marble eyes/Without the gift of sight."  Is it possible to imagine that Frost was not aware of the "white" in this poem calling up also Elinor's maiden name?

        Whatever the biographical circumstances, the female partner serves largely as the poet's inspiration, even, in a sense, the lady to whom the knight brings the prize, which in this case is the formal expression, the poem itself, as in "Waiting," or the symbol of it, a flower, as in "A Late Walk," or a bouquet, as in "Flower-Gathering."  And that inspiration largely comes from her silence, the very absence of speech associated with her.  However troubling that silence is, it seems to inspire the speaker of these poems.  But there's also a kind of petrifying aspect to his return to the female's domestic arena, as the woman is associated not with romance and imagination but with reason.  If our reading of "Stars" is right, she is Minerva, the goddess associated with chastity and cold reason.  And in "Dream Pang," when the dreaming speaker awaits to find that the dream of a lack of communication between the lovers is not real because she is really beside him in bed, he writes, "But 'tis not true that thus I dwelt aloof,/For the wood wakes, and you are here for proof."  "Proof" here, I think, implies more than just the fact that she is evidence that what he experienced was a dream.  The word associates her with something quite antagonistic to imagination and even passion--proof, rationality, even judgment.

        This is about as far as I've gotten with understanding this motif.  I am aware that at least one poem, "In a Vale," contradicts the idea, on the surface anyway. That poem's female figures (fairies or whatever they are) are the voluble ones, while the speaker is the silent receiver of the communication.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Reception of A Boy's Will (Based on selections in Wagner, Robert Frost:  The Critical Reception)

        With few exceptions the reviews of A Boy's Will are favorable.  They emphasize the directness and simplicity of its language and thus the sincerity of feeling that its poems express. One reviewer, for instance, characterizes the poem's thoughts as "simple," even "naïve"; and that is meant as a compliment from a writer tired of ornate, flowery expression from the poetry produced at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.

    Ezra Pound, the noted poet and "maker of poets," published a review in America's Poetry.  After using the review as a vehicle to attack his native country, whose editors "scorn" what is truly original in poetry and publish drivel, Pound too focuses on the "utter sincerity" of the poems in Frost's first volume.  The poems are entirely without "sham" and "affectation."  Like other reviewers he responds to the poems' language-- its simple, colloquial, non-polysyllabic vocabulary and its rhythms, which closely approximate those of "natural speech."  What this means is that word order is not wrenched out of its normal progression in order to accommodate rhyme or meter.  Pound and another reviewer do "slam" Frost for an occasional infelicity of this sort.  One even regrets that the lines unfold, on occasion, in a halting fashion, even if Frost intended to achieve that effect. Perhaps the most enthusiastic response occurs in the review from The Academy.  That review characterizes Frost's poems as "simple, lucid, and experimental" without being the products of someone who belongs to a certain poetic school.

    The reviewers seldom remark on matters of form.  One finds the overall plan of the book a failure, while another praises the glosses Frost offers in the table of contents because it keeps the readers from having to guess at the poems' meaning.  Only the reviewer from Poetry and Drama refers to the "shape" of the poems, writing, "Each poem is the complete expression of one mood, one emotion, one idea."   Finally, I think the observation from another review that the poems record a "world apprehended by the passive recipient" get at an interesting question about the speaker's relation to his surroundings in almost all of these poems, a question whose answer is more complex than at first glance. Is it really "passive?" All in all, these largely favorable reviews amount to a solid launching pad for Frost's career.  And in depicting him as both new and original and as separate from any "school" of poetry ("imagists," for instance), they must certainly have appealed to his vanity, to his Yankee sense of independence and originality.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Saying Things in North of Boston
(A Sample Two Page Paper)

        In the third poem of North of Boston, "The Mountain," the speaker of the poem and the man in the ox cart discuss the mountain Hor, and especially the spring that only perhaps emerges at its peak.  A new England slope, the mountain resembles Helicon, the home of the muses on top of which wells up a spring originally stamped out by Pegasus.  In light of this allusive resemblance, it is interesting to hear the man in the cart "level with" the speaker about the spring's not really changing temperature during the seasons:

                                I don't suppose the water's changed at all
                                You and I know enough to know it's warm
                                Compared with cold, and cold compared with warm,
                      But all the fun's in how you say a thing (emphasis added)

In a sense this last line amounts to any poet's "creed"; and just as likely, this poem about a mountain is also a poem about poetry and the poet's achieving a poetic reputation, his/her defying gravity, to use a favorite Frost metaphor, by reaching the peak of this Parnassus.

        But this line also calls attention to a larger motif within this volume:  the emphasis on "how a person says a thing."  I count 11 of the volume's 16 poems in which this concern surfaces quite plainly.  In the others it takes a muted form.  Here, briefly, are the poems and a short-hand version of the shape the motif takes:  "Mending Wall," with the neighbor's saying, "Good fences make good neighbors";  "The Death of a Hired Man," with the hired man's rote claim that he's come "to ditch the meadow" and the couple's exchanging sayings about the meaning of home (43); "The Mountain," and the line quoted above; "Home Burial," with the husband's saying, "Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/Will rot the best birch fence a man can build," not to mention the wife's repeated complaints about his inability to say things right; "The Black Cottage," with the old lady's anticipated objection to eliminating the phrase "descended into Hades" from the Creed (66); "The Code, and the violent consequences of someone's saying something in a way that violates the unspoken code (71, for instance); "The Generations of Men," and its lingering over the way the young man pretends to say the prophecy heard in the brook (80); "The Housekeeper," with John's saying, "Better than married ought to be as good/As married" (84); "The Fear," and the wife's telling Joel, "We mustn't say hard things. You mustn't either" (91); and finally "The Woodpile," and the bird's being ever so careful to "say no word to tell [the speaker] who he was" (100).

        There's no room in this short paper to analyze the various permuatations in the significance of this pattern, which could in part stand in well, I suspect, as illustrations of the things Deborah Tannen has to say about the differences between male and female talk.  One element in this motif, however, attracts my attention:  the men's tendency to rely on sayings.  Whether it's the neighbor in "Mending Wall," the husbands in "Home Burial" and "A Servant to Servants," or John in "The Housekeeper," the saying seems to cut the male off from sympathy with another, while at the same time serving as a kind of pragmatic shortcut for dealing with emotional turmoil and/or the unknown.  It's a self-protective way of "getting on with life," even if it involves a kind of blindness to surrounding complexities.  It's also a way to tether words and language to a fixed pole, to prevent it from sliding in its meaning.  Though this tendency makes the men almost "fools," to use the housekeeper's term for John, Frost does not seem to display it as entirely negative.  In fact he almost offers it as one way that we can put up a "stay against confusion" in our lives.  Finally, though, with Frost's constant emphasis in his poetry on "the stuggle" to erect this "stay," it seems that the men come too easily upon, and stay too unquestioningly with, their sayings.  It's not so bad to build the wall, but to do it as easily as the neighbor in "Mending Wall" comes too close to a kind of resignation for Frost, a return to the old savages armed.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Reception of North of Boston
Casey Kirkpatrick

        Critics invariably supported Frost’s second volume of poetry, North of Boston.  Several of the reviewers compared Frost to Walt Whitman as the next poet who captured the spirit of the American people.  Another obvious connection that critics exploited was the similarities between Robert Frost’s dramatic dialogues and Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues.  Most also took the opportunity to comment both on how he was writing in “old” England about New England, and how he was another American literary refugee to Europe.

        Ezra Pound’s review was particularly notable because he barely discussed Frost’s poetry at all.  His criticism of Frost’s works, though positive, is filled with generalities at best.  He opens his review with, “It is a sinister thing that so Americans, I might even say so parochial, a talent as that of Robert Frost should have to be exported before it can find due encouragement and recognition.”  Pound does not say anything specific about the poetry of North of Boston until the sixth paragraph, and he does not mention an individual poem until the third to last paragraph of his review.  Although his review was meant to support Frost and his work, it turned out to be more insulting than uplifting to Frost, because Pound used the opportunity to further his own literary-political views rather than analyze some great poetry.

        Many of the critics dealt with whether or not the poems in North of Boston could in fact be considered poetry, because they rarely follow any established pattern of poetry.  However, in all cases, the reviewers confirmed the poetical nature of his writings.  Some justifications included the amount of description and mood he compressed into so few words, and an underlying, broken rhythm that mimicked true humanity.  Thus, with his second volume of poetry, Frost continued to gain more and more support among the critics.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Casey Kirkpatrick
North of Boston Commentary

        A recurring theme found in several of the poems in North of Boston is the conflict between time and timelessness.  Time serves as a catalyst for action in these poems, while Frost’s imagery of timelessness implies something universal in these events.  Indeed, North of Boston itself is full of poems in finite locations of New England, yet they deal with issues that transcend time and place.

        I first noticed this theme when reading "The Mountain."  I read through this poem without anything stimulating any thought until the last stanza.  At that point, the narrator has asked, “You’ve lived here all your life?” to which the native of Lunenburg replies:
                         “Ever since Hor
                         Was no bigger than a---“

Although the speaker does not finish his sentence, the implication is that he is as old as the mountain, which the reader has assumed to be some sort of infinite age.  All of a sudden, the seemingly meaningless conversation about the weather on the mountain during different seasons takes on some depth.  The idea that the town is so cyclical that it has been running the same way since mountains were young is beautiful and appealing in its stability.

        Perhaps my point can best be illustrated in "The Black Cottage."  Two wanderers peer into the window of the cottage, and the minister observes, “Everything’s as she left it when she died.”  The metaphor of the wanderer stumbling upon an image frozen in time is popular in Frost’s poetry.  Frost then mentions battles of the Civil War, to move forward the story of the black cottage and its inhabitants.  By simply dating the cottage with the mention of the Civil War, Frost injects vitality into the poem and gives the reader fuel to make opinions about the inhabitants.  On the next page, he writes, “ . . . it will trouble us a thousand years. /Each age will have to reconsider it.”  The narrator again dates the poem when he says, “ . . . we all have to think of nowadays . . .”  After mentioning the Civil War, the author takes time to discuss the old woman’s philosophies of the war.  When the author says, “nowadays,” he follows the word with a lengthy discussion on the old woman’s view of religion.  Everywhere there are contradictions between how things never change over time and how one instant in time contains so much and is so much different than the next.  The poem escalates until Frost writes:

                     “As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
                     I could be monarch of a desert land
                     I could devote and dedicate forever
                     To the truths we keep coming back and back to.”

Frost’s eloquence seems to sum up my argument better than I can.  And of course, he pulls the reader back to the present in the last few lines.  Right in the middle of the wistful thoughts of the speaker, he is interrupted by, “bees in this wall.”  Even in the house that has not changed in years, there is always life and vitality.

        The scene painted in "The Wood-Pile" feels like it could have been witnessed three hundred years ago or five hundred years into the future.  At the same time, he dates the age of the wood- pile as several years old when he says, “ . . . it was older sure than this year’s cutting,/ Or even last year’s or the year’s before.”  The last line shows the complexity of Frost’s poetry, where he combines the two contrasting elements.  The description of, “the slow smokeless burning of decay,” deals with an action that is currently going on, but also a universal process of decay that affects all living creatures.

        The role of time and timelessness can be discussed in most of the poems in North of Boston.  The idea of an instant ruining a lifetime is a theme in "The Self-Seeker."  "The Mending Wall" deals with an annual tradition between neighbors, and it has elements of multiple generations, as does, obviously, "The Generations of Men."  The fruits that blossom at different seasons in "Blueberries" show the seasonal, recurring growth that sustains life.  Frost even concludes the volume with a poem titled "Good Hours," significant in that it once again draws attention to the role of time in his poetry



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

________________________________________________________________________________________________
Amy Dessureault
Grieving and the Acceptance of Death in Mountain Interval

        In many of the poems in Mountain Interval, Frost appears to return to the topic of grief and mourning first touched upon in the poem “Home Burial” in North of Boston.  The poem is based somewhat on Frost and his wife’s treatment of their son’s death.  In the poem, the wife is troubled by the way others deal with grief.
                 “The nearest friends can go
                 With anyone to death, comes so far short
                 They might as well not try to go at all.
                 No, from the time when one is sick to death,
                 One is alone, and he dies more alone.
                 Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
                 But before one is in it, their minds are turned
                 And making the best of their way back to life
                 And living people, and things they understand.
                 But the world’s evil.  I won’t have grief so
                 If I can change it.  Oh, I won’t, I won’t.”

        The wife does not believe one should move on quickly after losing a loved one, yet her husband expresses disdain for her grief and the fact that she continues to grieve and not move on.   The husband says:
             “Give me my chance.
             I do think, though, you overdo it a little
             What was it brought you up to think it the thing
             To take your mother-loss of a first child
             So inconsolably– in the face of love.
             You’d think his memory might be satisfied.”

        The couple’s grief is separating them.  At a time when they should be close, mourning the death of something they shared and were an equal part of, there is a separation between them.  Everyone has different ways of mourning and dealing with grief, yet neither the husband nor the wife is able to understand and accept the other’s feelings.

        When first reading “Home Burial,” due to its foundation in the death of Frost’s son, I wondered if it had to do with a personal conflict Frost and his wife were experiencing about how she had not yet finished grieving, whereas he had.  However, the fact that Frost continues to express the theme of loss and the problem of dealing with grief makes me question if Frost was not as deeply affected as Elinor White and just chose to express grief in a different way from his wife.  The husband in “Home Burial” grieves silently and continues on with his life, while his wife is unable to accept their loss.

        The reader must also wonder if Frost is able to accept moving on with life.  In later poems, found in Mountain Interval, Frost appears to be justifying this decision to himself.  Frost, often feeling unsure about his decisions, justifies them to himself as seen in “The Road Not Taken.”  Frost appears to be personally troubled by moving on so easily, but at the same time, if this poem is the focus, he knows he eventually will have rationalized and moved on.  Though Frost appears to want to be the strong silent type like the husband in “Home Burial,” he seems troubled by this choice and appears to hope that through his poetry he will be able to put himself more at ease.  In the poem “The Exposed Nest,” Frost looks to nature for support of his decision.  Much like friends departing before death arrives, the narrator recalls:

             All this to prove we cared.  Why is there then
             No more to tell? We turned to other things.
             I haven’t any memory–have you?–
             Of ever coming to the place again
             To see if the birds lived the first night through,
             And so at last to learn to use their wings.

        The two people who help protect the baby birds depart without knowing the outcome of their good deed, turning back to their own lives.  Frost appears to find solace in the thought that the “accepted” way to deal with death is to distance oneself as the final stages of death approach and after death has occurred.    In the poem “Out, Out,” the characters turn back to their lives despite the fact that the young boy has just died. “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”  A similar sentiment is felt in “Snow” when the woman wants to sit up and make sure the preacher avoids death in the terrible snowstorm; however, her husband convinces her to turn back to her concerns and go to bed.
 ‘We’ll have to sit here till we know he’s safe.’

            ‘Yes, I suppose, you’ll want to, but I shouldn’t.
             He knows what he can do, or he wouldn’t try.
             Get into bed I say, and get some rest.
             He won’t come back, and if he telephones,
             It won’t be for an hour or two.’
                 ‘Well then.
             We can’t be any help by sitting here.’

        Feeling that they have done as much as they could, the Coles turn back to their lives, much like friends turn back to their interests as the final stages of death approach, and they realize they can no longer help the one dying avoid it.  Starting with “Home Burial,” Frost begins to explore the theme of grief.  While we all have different ways of grieving, Frost appears to yearn for some justification for his style of mourning in many of his poems in Mountain Interval.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Amy Dessureault
Mountain Interval Critical Reception

        The largely positive reviews of Frost’s third edition of poetry, Mountain Interval, orbit around two major issues: the exploration of the depths of human emotion and the sincere representation of the character of New Englanders.  William Stanley Baithwaite commented upon the “indescribable magic which Mr. Frost evokes from the plain and severe quality of New England life and character glow again in these pages.”

        W.A. Bradley commented about the sensuous quality that is again present in these works, similar to those seen in A Boy’s Will.  Bradley enjoyed and admired Frost, particularly his keen sense of observation and the way he deals with complex human emotions.  However, Bradley felt Frost was “often unnecessarily cryptic and involved.”

        Bradley and many other critics appreciated the way Frost dealt with the “tradition of magic,” creating a haunted atmosphere in many of his poems including “In The Home Stretch.”  Another critic wrote, “[Frost] attains the finest expression of the distinctive thing he brings into literature- the tremor that comes from many haunting things.”

        Most of the critics compared Mountain Interval with works of Edgar Lee Masters published at approximately the same time.  Both volumes of poetry delved into American local life.  While Masters from Illinois wrote his Spoon River Anthology with the deceased townspeople speaking from their graves, Frost focused on more typical poetic topics, giving things “a character of their own.”  Unlike Masters who was an anti-Imperialist, Frost provided no social judgment in his poetry, allowing the reader to feel sympathy. In North of Boston, there was “earthy mystery” and a sense of community, while the poems of Mountain Interval shift toward a more personal focus, seen in sonnets and the dramatic sequence “The Hill Wife.”

        Sidney Cox discussed how Frost has a strong control of language, ordering words to have particular meaning in sentences, as illustrated in “Birches” and, in New Hampshire, “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.”  Cox found Frost’s poetry to be incredibly sincere and a good representative of the soul of New Englanders.  Cox believed this was due to three things: Frost’s knowledge of himself, Frost’s love of people, and Frost’s desire to be a searcher of truths.  Cox wrote:  “Intense imaginative sympathy suffuses Mr. Frost’s poems of people. . .There is a sort of intellectual vision of conflicts and diverse evolutions of the human soul which does not deserve the name of sympathy; it is astute penetration without participation.”

        Those in England contrasted Frost with Lowell, Pound, and Lindsay.  Englanders found Mountain Interval to be very Wordsworthian because of its simple language and simple occurrences.  Englanders expressed the importance of the immerging American poets who were able to capture the identity of America, since life in America was different from that in England.  The flora and fauna separate these works from the knowledge of Englanders, leaving critics to comment that the “poems which taste, queerly under an English tongue.” After all, the nature of England is radically different from rocky New England, and as Monroe points out, “Nature is always thus an integral part of Mr. Frost’s human dramas- not a mere background but one of the cast”.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



  Passage Review--21 Feb
 
 Passage  Volume (1pt)  Title of Poem (2pts)
They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
                        ?                     ?
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.
                  ?                     ?
I made him gather me wet snow berries
On slippery rocks beside a waterfall.
I made him do it for me in the dark.
And he liked everything I made him do.
                  ?                      ?
                               . . .Then the boy saw all--
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart--
He saw all spoiled.
                  ?                      ?
Lately in converse with a New York alec
About the new school of the pseudo-phallic,
I found myself in a close corner where
I had to make an almost funny choice.
'Choose you which you will be--prude, or puke . . .
                  ?                      ?
I wonder how far down the road he's got.
He's watching from the woods as like as not.
                  ?                      ?
And thus it is I know so well
   Why the flower has odor, the bird has song.
You have only to ask me, and I can tell.
No, not vainly there did I dwell,
    Nor vainly listen all the night long.
                  ?                      ?
                                          You're searching, Joe,
For things that don't exist; I mean beginnings.
Ends and beginnings--there are no such things.
There are only middles.
                  ?                     ?
'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.'

                                                'I should have called it
Something you shomehow haven't to deserve.'

                  ?                      ?
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
                  ?                      ?
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
                  ?                      ?
'Scare you.  But if you shrink from being scared,
What would you say to war if it should come?
That's what for reasons I should like to know--
If you can comfort me by an answer.'
                  ?                      ?
Ah, when to the heart of man
    Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
    To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
    Of a love or a season?
                  ?                      ?
To think to know the country and not know
The hillside on the day the sun lets go
Ten million silver lizards out of snow!
                  ?                      ?
Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther--and we shall see.'
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through.
                  ?                      ?
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love, 
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

                  ?                      ?
The finger pieces slid in all directions.
(Where did I see one of those pieces lately?
Hand me my button-box--it must be there.)
                  ?                      ?
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.
                  ?                      ?
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
                  ?                      ?
Once, when tyring with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.
                  ?                      ?


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Frost's Sonnets by the Numbers (32 in The Collected Poems)

      9 Shakespearean (Vol)                                                   12 Italian (Vol)                                                        11 Variations (Vol)
Putting in the Seed  (MI) 120 Dream Pang (BW) 25 Into My Own (BW) 15
On a Tree Fallen . . . (NH) 220 The Vantage Point (BW) 26 Mowing (BW) 26
Acceptance (WRB) 228 Meeting and Passing (MI) 115 The Oven Bird (MI) 116
The Master Speed (FR) 273 Range-Finding (MI) 122 Once by the Pacific (WRR) 229
The Silken Tent (WT) 302 The Flood (WRB) 233 Acquainted with . . .(WRB) 234
Never Again . . . (WT) 308 A Soldier (WRB) 240 The Birthplace (WRB) 243
Time Out (WT) 323 The Investment (WRB) 242 Unharvested (FR) 277
Etherealizing (SB) 359 Design (FR) 275 On a Bird Singing . . . (FR) 275
No Holy Wars for Them (SB) 361 Why Wait for Science (SB) 359 A Trial Run (FR) 279
Any Size We Please (SB) 359 One Step Backward. . .(SB) 340
Bursting Rapture (SB) 362 The Planners (SB) 361
The Broken Drought (SB) 363

Sonnet Forms and A Couple of Frost Variations
Shakespearean Frost Variant of Shakespearean--"Putting in the Seed" Petrarchan Spenserian Another Frost Variant--"Unharvested" 
a a a a a
b b b b b
a a b a a
b b a b c
a b b
c a b c c
d b b b d
c a a c a
d b c d
c c c  c d e
e c d d d d c
f d c e e  c d e
e c d c c  d d
f d c d e  e e f
d e d  e e f
g e
g e

Sonnets Per Volume
4    A Boy's Will (BW)
0    North of Boston (NB)
4    Mountain Interval (MI)
1    New Hampshire (NH)
7    West-Running Brook (WRB)
5    A Further Range (FR)
3    Witness Tree (WT)
8    Steeple Bush (SB)
 

Oddities

1 terza rima sonnet:  "Acquainted with the Night"

5 sonnets in couplets:  "Into My Own," "Once by the Pacific," "The Birthplace" (tetrameter), "On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep," "One Step Backward Taken" (tetrameter)

1 sonnet in triplets:  "The Planners"

"Hyla Brook" (MI) often considered a 15 line sonnet

13 vary in form from manifesting slight irregularities in their stanzas to bold rearrangements that put them in the far right column above

Frost on the Sonnet (the Poem):

1.  "The background in hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos; and against the background any small man-made figure of order and concentration.  What pleasanter than that this should be so?" ("Letter to The Amherst Student").

2.  "The sonnet is the strictest form I have behaved in, and that mainly by pretending it wasn't a sonnet."  (Letter to Untermeyer, 1961).

3.  Second half or so of "The Constant Symbol," with such quotes as, "Many a quatrain is salvaged from a sonnet that went agley, " or "Every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements."

4.  Read "The Silken Tent" and "On a Tree Fallen . . ." as sonnets partly about the sonnet form.
 

Short Bibliography:

Evans, Oliver H.  "'Deeds That Count':  Robert Frost's Sonnets."  Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23 (Spring 1981): 123-37.

Fussell, Paul.  Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.  New York:  Random House, 1979.

Maxson, H.A.  The Sonnets of Robert Frost:  A Critical Examination.  Jefferson, N.C.:  McFarland, 1998.

Rood, Karen.  "Wildness Opposing 'Sentence Sounds':  Robert Frost's Sonnets."  Frost: Entennial Essays II, ed. Jac Tharpe.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Martin Lewis-Gonzalez
Critical Reception of New Hampshire

        If Wagner’s work, The Critical Reception, is to be any guide, the 1923 release of New Hampshire met with rave reviews from critics nation wide.  Of the five critics listed, all noted New Hampshire as being a hallmark of Frost’s great abilities.  John Farrar spoke of Frost as being “one of the few great poets America has ever produced,” and his newest volume, at the time, as marking “so great an advance over his previous work that it should be hailed with any amount of hand shaking and cheers.”  In speaking of the volume, Untermeyer wrote “Frost has created...a poetry that belongs not only to the America of our own day but to the richest records of English verse.”  Critic Mark Van Doren skipped the flowery details and got to the pith of his analysis by saying that “New Hampshire is full of philosophy and fun.”

        Of the five critics only two had anything even remotely critical to say about Frost’s newest work.  Van Doren noted that “at its worst it is a mannerism, a tour de force of syntax; it puzzles with mere obscurity,” but followed that remark by saying that “at its best it is poetry of the subtlest sort.”  Robert Littell likewise noted Frost’s restraint in the volume in that it, “at its worst, verges on caution.”  Like Van Doren, however, Littell balanced out his statement by saying that “at its best, it produces clear and lovely poetry.”  Thus, even when being critical, his reviewers couldn’t help but acknowledge his abilities when they are at their best.

        In their reviews the critics also noted how New Hampshire compared to Frost’s previous works.  Louis Untermeyer noted, “Nothing, really has changed.  The idiom is clearer, the convictions have deepened – the essential things, the tone of voice, the points of view, remain the same.”  John Farrar, as quoted earlier, noted that Frost’s New Hampshire is a great advance over his previous work.  In so saying however, Farrar is not so much demoting Frost’s earlier work, as reinforcing the notion put forth by Untermeyer; that Frost is simply refining his original style.

        After their praise the critics branch out to analyze different aspects of the volume. Two specific items tended to be addressed more than others.  The first is the structure of his work, the second the whimsical nature of his poetry.  Almost all of the reviewers noted that the book begins with the rather lengthy title poem, "New Hampshire," and then follows up with “notes” and “grace notes.”  These notes and grace notes are poems in themselves that have some reflection on the greater poem.  As Van Doren aptly stated, “Mr. Frost as editor has bound them by footnote and cross reference to a long poem, ‘New Hampshire’.” Thus the entire volume of poems is supposed to be interconnected and jointly supportive.  Dudley described the poem "New Hampshire" as “a kind of nonchalant overcoat; in the pockets are poems of a more lonely, absolute character – ‘Notes and Grace notes’, which complete the volume.”

        Ferrar noted that Frost’s use of this interconnecting form, as a structure for his book, is of a whimsical nature.  Though he did not investigate this notion further, Untermeyer did so in his own review.  Untermeyer examined the perception of Frost’s factual realism against an ever more apparent element of whimsicality.  Untermeyer claimed that this whimsicality can be seen subtly in Frost’s earlier works, but is clearly found on every page of New Hampshire.  Thus, while others label Frost as being a grim poet, Untermeyer claimed him to be a rather humorous one, with even his most serious poems containing “slyly intimate banter.”

        Thus, given the review of these five critics, Frost’s book, New Hampshire, was received with great acclaim.  His latest work had not only achieved the great level of his earlier works, but in the mind’s eye of many critics, had surpassed them.  In his closing words Farrar noted: “Perhaps this is the perfection of Frost’s singing.  Perhaps this is the fruit of his ripest powers.  It is a book of which America may well be proud, which is quite above cavil and prejudice.”



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Proposed Topics for Final Papers

Casey Kirkpatrick:  "The Gothic Frost."   Examines the gothic elements in Frost's poetry and the extent to which that label and its application enriches or limits our understanding of selected poems.  Poems:  "The Two Witches, certainly.

Amy Dessureault:  "Seeking Fantasies and Other Places."  Explores the unfulfilled nature of male-female relationships in Frost's poetry and how that sense of incompleteness leads females to seek fantasies and other sources of contentment.

Martin Lewis-Gonzalez:  "Death in Frost."  Investigates the essential features in Frost's treatment of death.

Lyndsay Fredericksen:  "The Female Frost"  Studies Frost's battle with his feminine side, including his relationships with women (mother and wife), his portrayal of dialogues between husbands and wives, and his struggle to negotiate between the popular and academic receptions of his poetry.

Michael Johnson:  "Manly Naming in New Hampshire."  Analyzes the obsession with names in the poem as ultimately Frost's furious attempt to claim a masculinity for himself.

Brian Higgins:  "'Into My Own'" as Road Map to Later Poems."  Focuses on the perplexing questions arising from what seems to be Frost's clear assertion at the end of "Into My Own":  "They would not find me changed from him they knew--/Only more sure of all I thought was true."

Pat O'Connor:  "Frost's God."  Explores Frost's exploration of the deity in his poems, especially those in A Further Range.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Lyndsay Fredericksen
Robert Frost’s Search for the Elusive Truth in New Hampshire

        Despite the fluff of the epic title poem and the divisions of Notes and Grace Notes, there nonetheless seems to be a continuous quest in Robert Frost’s New Hampshire to uncover the elusive truth.  While New Hampshire is a parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Frost uncovers beauty better than ever before even though he is trying diligently to repress his poetical side and become more the voice of reason to be accepted by the academic world.  While there is ample evidence among his previous collections of the quest for the elusive truth, I began to feel the yearning of this quest after musing over “A Star in a Stone-Boat.”  And, for the first time, I felt like he does find an answer to his questions; however the catch is that it is momentary and fleeting.

        One of Frost’s themes is searching for the purpose of life.  While there never will be an end to this timeless search, Frost devotes himself to writing poetry about momentary truths.  He makes us think finding momentary truths in his poetry is against his will, but is it?  His poetry is a process of uncovering the elusive, ever-changing truth.  He tries to share with us what he feels and sees; however, his poetry is neither harsh nor self-laudatory.  He uncovers truths with a demure, gentle—you could even say—feminine touch.  For example in “A Star in a Stone-Boat,” the speaker who searches whimsically for fallen meteors, and in particular one fallen star, says, “I do not know—I cannot stop to tell:/ He might have left it lying where it fell.”  He does not really care where the star actually ends up.  He is concerned with the process of searching for stars.  Likewise, searching for fallen stars is whimsical—it is neither practical nor productive.  He goes on to say, “Some may know what they seek in school and church,/ And why they seek it there; for what I search/ I must go measuring stone walls…”  He knows in the process of doing and searching, at precise moments, he will find the truth—what life is—but it is the unstoppable process that makes searching for the finite moments of truth worth the quest.

        Frost really does not care to elaborate to his readers in any of his poetry what he is searching for: the vagueness of his simple words offers a glimpse of the incomprehensible pieces of truth.  No  poem better than “Fragmentary Blue” captures this point.  Frost battles with the believer (feminine side) and skeptic (masculine) elements of himself when he tries to write about the elusive truth.  In “Fragmentary Blue” he uses the sky to show how when we look up, we can only see so far into the heavens, and in looking up, we are reminded that we are earthbound.  In looking up at the sky, perhaps, we can glimpse more than just the blue we see, maybe, an elusive truth.  The color blue also reminds us of melancholy and evokes a sense of longing and restlessness, which reinforces Frost’s quest of finding the elusive truth.

        Part of what makes this collection come to life more than the others is the complexity of the poet’s mind.  In Frost’s process of questioning what is truth, what is life, he negates and covers up the beauty he tries to describe.  This is much like a woman who carries herself like a field hand, because she thinks she is ugly, who in reality is stunningly beautiful.  When you look at the sky it appears to be blue.  Scientifically, the sky is not blue—the color we see has to do with refraction and reflection of earth’s waters, which is very much like peering through many veils.  Frost conceals beauty behind so many veils of preconceived notions—on purpose to make us look at something “blue” which we take for granted to see this beauty, that has always been there (we are just too blind or dumb to see it).  Or, we are only supposed to see this elusive truth fleetingly.  If we saw pure beauty and truth all the time we would no longer have a purpose to life: we would have found paradise.   Notice the punctuation, “Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)—.”  He bumbles the very essence of the elusive truth by using vague words—“perhaps” and then side comments “(as yet)” to de-glorify what he is trying so hard to glorify.  Examples like this abound throughout the entire collection of New Hampshire.

        In New Hampshire we see the pivotal point of Frost’s struggle with being accepted by academia and mainstream America.  He is struggling between revealing all of himself as poets are want to do, and containing himself so he can be the poet bard.  We see the rough edges.  The fight.  The title poem begins more like work from a bard, and the end of this collection is where you find more emotion and more chinks in his stonewall between reality and fantasy.  After the “Two Witches,” the fight really begins between Frost embracing or disowning his feminine side—to gain the academic world’s acceptance. Despite Frost’s attempts at distancing himself from his poetry and the feminine side, the truth continues to re-emerge.  We see glimpses of the elusive truth, because we are not looking for them.  In our class even, sometimes we seem more preoccupied with the  struggle between masculine/feminine than Frost’s quest to uncover the elusive truth IN/OF LIFE that we forget how many times he is so close to the actual truth.   An argument can also be made that Frost’s poems are not “gendered.”  At the same time, however, the sorts of momentary truths we do experience, it seems, must emerge through this gender prism.

        There are so many dichotomies at work in Frost’s poetry that I have mentioned before I can reach my main point of Frost actually finding what he is searching for.  I know I sound somewhat side-tracked.  But, in this vein, in rambling about his different themes, I hope to stumble upon my “momentary stay against confusion” and understand what the heck is meant by finding the elusive truth.  The elusive truth--among all the muck of descriptions and extra words, you can find a white pearl.  Getting back to my point, in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” when you read this poem aloud the more lyrical Frost is revealed as well as the emphatic statement that the elusive truth ain’t always gonna be there, because “Nothing gold can stay.”  He knows that what he seeks, for the moment he tries to keep it contained, will rot and decay.  This vein that the elusive truth can only occur for a moment in time is echoed in his disdain that summer is not a beautiful season, because it is the decaying of spring.  His belief that summer is over-ripe seems odd, but when you add this to your understanding that spring is not beautiful either for Frost, you uncover the true meaning of Frost’s assertions that earth can never be paradise.  This idea is enormously significant in Frost’s poetry and why he is seen as being so anti-Utopian.  In fact, this mind-set materializes in the title poem, “New Hampshire.”

        In “A Hillside Thaw” the crede that earth can only hold momentary glimpses of the perfection of paradise is seen again when the speaker wishes to capture the melting snow to preserve the moment when he exclaims, “the thought of my attempting such a stay!”  These are examples of knowing the glimpse of the elusive truth is fleeting, just what Frost calls a “momentary stay against confusion” in his essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes.”  “To Earthward” is another analogous example of Frost’s attempts to imprint the eternal upon the speaker’s body when he yearns, “The hurt is not enough:/ I long for weight and strength/ To feel the earth as rough/ To all my length.”  It is not feasible to maintain an on-going relationship with the elusive truth.  If we as readers are able to understand this and why truth or beauty is indefinable, and why we search our whole lives for the purpose of life, then we can feel and somewhat identify with Frost.

        We see the glimpses of truth more and more as we read through New Hampshire, because in Frost’s attempts at hiding his more feminine side, spurts of truth escape out of his deliberately controlled writing.  “Two Look at Two” is a remarkable example of Frost’s feminine, emotional side giving way to reason when the couple in the poem decides that their find is the purpose of life, “’This must be all.’” This is immediately followed by the narrator’s insertion,  “It was all.”    The couple is not looking for an answer as they hike at night up a mountain, but they find the answer.

        Frost knows this—and his poetry is an attempt at sharing this beauty with us blockheads.   The mysterious truth in “For Once, Then, Something” pops out at you when you least expect to glimpse the truth. A modern example of what seeing momentary truths are like is the 3-D hidden image stereograms.  Magic Eye, if you recall, was popular a few years ago, and part of its popularity had to do with the elusiveness of being able to only see the image for a few seconds.  The digitalized art pops out at you after you stare endlessly at the one-dimensional surface—and if you look away or avert your eyes, the image disappears as fast as it appeared.  Frost captures this same aura of fascination and even more uncertainty at glimpsing something that might not be there in “For Once, Then, Something” when the speaker writes “I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,/ Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,/ Something more of the depths—and then I lost it….What was that whiteness?/ Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”  This is yet another example of Frost’s search for the elusive truth.

        Actually seeing and being able to re-create unearthly paradise in his poetry is what Frost loves exploring.  “A Boundless Moment” begins, “He halted in the wind, and—what was that/ Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?”  This poem is about seeing the unearthly paradise.  He loses the glimpse of paradise.  Yet, this is ok.  Frost truly solidifies himself as the poet who knows himself in this collection.  Even though he yearns like the rest of us for the elusive truth, he is satisfied with rare glimpses during his life journey.  He reveals this to us, the readers (or lovers), in his poetry.  He, poet bard that he has become, is okay with not knowing.

        His struggle with his manly side and trying to hunt down the elusive truth is amusing at best, but the deeper, inner revelations of his emotional, feminine side are admirable.  Therefore, in beginning this discussion about questing after the elusive truth, we look at examples of vague language and Frost’s struggle between the masculine/ feminine discourses of his being (which we witness in the voices of his poems), and will end no more able to see the glimpse of truth at the bottom of the well, or using stays to stop the ever-slithering silvery lizards of truth.  I muddied the waters of the well and I am afraid, sopped up the lizards, which are no more rivulets, but a big muddy puddle.  As it is spring in this extended metaphor, we are no closer to our own understanding of Frost, his poetry, or own lives through his poems.  Better luck next time in the quest, eh?



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Lyndsay Fredericksen
Critical Reception of West-Running Brook

        West-Running Brook is the anti-climax to New Hampshire, or so the critics seem to argue.  While almost all refer to this collection as being charming, they are not impressed with West-Running Brook, because the themes seem manufactured, the book is too short, and they are disappointed as there is no significant advance in his poetry.

        Of the twelve reviews about West-Running Brook, half remark about the charm in his poetry before going on to say what is wrong with the book.  The charm of his writing includes the ever-present conversational tone and the fast-paced New England twang.  While Frost is still able to make the un-poetical poetical with his charming conversational tone, the critics say his prior works had soul and depth, whereas West-Running Brook is more one-dimensional.

        Most of the reviewers remark that West-Running Brook has charm, but the themes lack depth of those in previous books and the book is his shortest yet.  The book is less than six-hundred lines—only forty poems of mostly sonnet length; therefore, from the outset most of the critics had the same viewpoint that the book possesses a scarcity of theme and length.  Theodore Spencer feels like Frost has “lost or abandoned a view of life which was, in its implications, tragic, and adopted instead an allegorizing method which is far less important.”  What he means by this is that compared to Frost’s other collections, these poems have no corporeal meaning, the meanings have to be searched and thought about before arriving at a conclusion. The writing seems to be more manufactured.  The dialogue between the man and woman in  “West-Running Brook” is an example of the new Frost who is visibly struggling with suppressing his feminine side.  Spencer also thinks “West-Running Brook” does not hold water when compared with “The Death of a Hired Man,” because it lacks any “sense of a present reality.”  Instead, Spencer believes Frost voids himself of human emotions, turning to “objects unconnected except in the poet’s mind.”  Sarah Cleghorn also comes to a similar conclusion in her article about how his attention has progressively been turning “toward the thoughts and emotions of earth.”  Another critic commented in The Dial that Frost’s new collection is different from his other poems, because its poems are not about people; rather they are gnomic verses where words and movement do not really matter. New Hampshire is seen as a turning point in Frost’s career when he suppresses his feminine voice in order to be accepted by the academic world.  The critics seem to think this volume of poetry slides further from his usual depth, because the poems are only lyrical and seem more fantasy-like than the other Frost poems that are based more upon reality.   At the same time, the lyricism seems more rational and contrived, rather than emotional in some of the poems—which makes the volume also demonstrates Frost trying to give up the feminine tradition.

        Overall, the critics are disappointed with the content of West-Running Brook.  While they believe the book has all the charm of his former books, most of the critics feel as though something is missing.  Babette Deutsch remarks that while several pieces “are unworthy of inclusion…it shows no impressive advance.”  She seems to kick Frost in the side with her next comment, even though she is sincere: “almost every piece is wrought of the true gold of poetry.”  Frederick E. Pierce says the book “arouses mingled admiration and disappointment,” but the theme is handled with, “smallness, limitation, almost barrenness…His poetry does not dazzle, but its spell lingers long.”  E. Merril Root also finds the poems to be more exquisitely perfect “where the poet has dipped his pen in magic.”  He also likens Frost to a provincial Virgil, citing this as Frost’s limitation, because he does not have the spiritual mastery of an empire, only the lovely and dignified diction of a small national scheme.  A careful look at his poetry in this book may reveal a deeper Frost, a Frost most of the critics failed to dig up.

        There is a controversy amongst Louis Untermeyer and the other critics over whether West-Running Brook is good material.  Louis Untermeyer is the lone critic who is troubled by the negative reviews.  He tries to explain Frost to the critics who miss the point of Frost’s work—like Babette Deutsch.  Louis Untermeyer, his long-time friend, writes that he is being “more praised for the wrong things.”  Whereas, the other critics claim that Frost has lost his ability to produce good poems in this collection, Untermeyer remarks that his “latest work, is a reflection and a statement of his earliest.”  The other critics paint Frost’s lyrical collection in a more negative light, because they find no narratives in the book and fault Frost for not having the depth they are used to seeing.  They think he is an abstemious poet who can neither write long epic poems, in short, succinct poems. Untermeyer argues that “beneath the graceful image there speaks a greatness of soul” in this collection that is more refined than in his other previous collections.  Untermeyer praises the lyrical Frost by saying you can see a technical shift for the better in West-Running Brook with more rhythmic ease and a talk-flavored tone that was previously not as refined.
While all agree that none of the poems is among Frost’s best, almost every critic has one poem that sticks out to him/her as being good poetry.  This tells me that the book is popular nonetheless, because each critic had a different favorite; which means Frost’s poetry appeals to many people’s heartstrings for many different reasons.  “Spring Pools” and “West-Running Brook” are the most popular poems with positive comments in this book.  Overall, this book is not his best work, but his readers still remained faithful he had not lost his talent for good poetry yet.



 

Patrick O’Connor
Critical Reception of A Further Range

     By the time Frost’s sixth volume of poetry, A Further Range, was released, he had become a giant in the American literary world.  Consequently, many critics offered their insight as to the quality of his latest volume.  Their response was mixed.  A majority had very positive to things to say about the volume, only a small minority dismissed the volume entirely, and several more critics praised certain poems and criticized others.

        The positive comments were very complimentary and at times bordered on raising Frost up to a deity.  After reading A Further Range, John Holmes stated that Frost was “undisputed as the first poet of his country.”  He continued to speak of how Frost managed to be quite universal in this volume, even though it remained regional as anything he had published.  Other critics such as Benét spoke of his careful use of every single word and his mature and complete mastery of the poetic form.  Many critics liked how he acknowledged the times (the Great Depression) while staying somewhat removed. They said that he did not take the world too seriously, yet was very aware of it.  Frost’s wit and humor in his constantly loaded words and double-meaning expressions were commented on frequently.   One example of this is the title for the poem “Not Quite Social.”  The title can refer to both the narrator of the poem, who does not completely fit in with the social fabric of society, and a broader context of being staunchly against political and economic socialism as an institution.  Essentially, those with high praise for this volume said that nothing is greatly different in it from his previous work.  It is still filled with “charming ambiguities” and wit, but it is definitely more refined and reflective of his maturity as a poet.  The two poems most often mentioned as the best in the volume were “Two Tramps in Mudtime” and “Iris by Night.”

        Most of the negative criticism came from those who believed that Frost should have stayed away from political commentary in this volume.  Horace Gregory, who incidentally liked most of the volume, stated that Frost’s “wisdom in politics could be compared to that of Calvin Coolidge.”  Critics Humphries, Blackmur, and Arvin had the most negative things to say.  Arvin criticized Frost’s work as not being able to capture a “major strain” of New England culture but only a minor one.   Blackmur continued in saying that Frost was only a bard who pretended to know a great deal about every subject in the poems, and not as a poet who can make a true image out of words.  Humphries agreed with the previous two and merely said the work was “ordinary.”  Other critics, who liked some aspects of the volume, criticized Frost’s political commentary and thought he should stay away from subjects he does not know extremely well.  The most often criticized poem was “Build Soil-A Political Pastoral.”  The critics who said negative things about this poem did not appreciate the political references and were not impressed with the free verse.

        There were many more positive reviews of this volume than negative.  More than one critic went as far as to say that Frost was the quintessential American poet.  Because he had already achieved such great success, it seems natural that there would also be critics who might say that this volume from an aging poet is fraught with complacency due to his previous success.  Generally, critics hailed A Further Range as his most impressive work to date with a more refined and skillful version of styles already established in his poetry.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



 

Frost's Readiness to Change Titles of Poems after Initial Publication

The following list excludes those poems like "Design," "Range-Finding," and "For Once, Then, Something," for instance, whose titles changed from draft to publication.  Thirty-seven in all.
 
 
Titles on Later Publication Titles on First Publication
All Revelation Geode (1938)
America is Hard to See And All We Call America (1951
Atmosphere Inscription for a Garden Wall (1928)
The Broken Drought But He Meant It (1947)
Brown's Descent The Story of Brown and the Winter Wind (1916)
Canis Major On a Star-Bright Night (1925)
Choose Something Like a Star Take Something Like a Star (1963)
The Code The Code--Heroics (1914)
Does No One At All Ever Feel This Way in the Least? Does No One But Me . . . (1952)
Door in the Dark Speaking of Metaphor (1928)
Dust of Snow A Favour (1920)
The Egg and The Machine The Walker (1928)
Evil Tendencies Tendencies Cancel (1936)
The Flood Blood (1928)
The Hardship of Accounting Money (1936)
An Importer The Importer (1947)
In Hardwood Groves The Same Leaves (1926)
It Takes All Sorts of in and Outdoor Schooling The Poet (1959)
The Objection to Being Stepped On My Objection (1957)
Of the Stones of the Place Rich in Stones (1942)
On Going Unnoticed Unnoticed (1925)
Our Doom to Bloom Doom to Bloom (1950)
A Passing Glimpse The Passing Glimpse (1926)
Pea Bush Pea-Sticking (1914)
A Peck of Gold The Common Fate (1927)
Quandary Somewhat Dietary (1959/The Old Pair (1960)
The Quest of the Purple-Fringed The Quest of the Orchis (1901)
Questioning Faces Of a Winter Evening (1958)
The Secret Sits Ring Around (1936)
A Soldier The Soldier (1927)
The Sound of the Trees  The Sound of Trees (1914)
The Span of Life The Old Dog (1935)
To a Thinker To a Thinker in Office (1936)
To the Right Person Fourteen Lines (1946)
Triple Bronze Triple Plate (1939)
Unharvested Ungathered Apples (1934)
Why Wait for Science? Our Getaway (1946)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Lyndsay Fredericksen
        "A Peck of Dreams"

        For some reason “A Peck of Gold” in Robert Frost’s West-Running Brook captures a side of Frost that is not endemic to his other works.  Frost’s tone in this collection is more whimsical than New Hampshire and Mountain Interval and that whimsy paradoxically drives home the grave seriousness of the poem’s underlying meanings.  While many of the critics found West-Running Brook lacking in depth and saw his new volume as charming at best, “A Peck of Gold” appeals to me more than usual.  The brevity of the poems make interpreting more difficult.  The meanings are more complex as well, because there are more than one interpretations for each poem.  This poem is universally applicable, because on the surface it has a simple “moral;” at the same time, the poem is also more complex.  Deciding which interpretation is most useful or appealing to the individual reader is where the critics begin to disagree on whether or not poems like a “Peck of Gold” are worthy of criticism.

        This poem speaks of dreams—and the cruelty with which we become ambivalent and sarcastic once our dreams are shattered.  The adult voice sarcastically makes the child really believe, “some of the blowing dust was gold.” The child’s voice symbolizes the warm, fuzzy feelings of childhood: innocence, trust, awe.  As adult readers, on a different level, we are able to grasp the beautiful imagery of shimmering gold sunsets caused by the “dust the wind blew high,” but our practical minds know the mirage is not really made of gold.  This fairy-tale image pleasantly reminds us of our own childhood fantasies, because the child in us sees the gold as pure aesthetic beauty.  For the adult the euphoric metaphor is tarnished.  We associate the dust with cashed in dreams, especially the gold dust from San Francisco, because it is reminiscent of the gold rush dreams.  Many trekked out to California in hopes of becoming fat and rich off of the land.   These men expect to mine gold; however, they find choking dust clinging to everything—consequentially smothering their dreams. This is what makes the adult extremely sarcastic, and it is the reason for mocking the gold dust.

        The narrator “was one of the children told/ Some of the dust was really gold.”  Children’s worlds are black and white.  They cannot decipher between truths and falsehoods.  Adults lie and make up stories about the way things work to pacify their children’s nagging curiosity.  Frost playfully chides and assumes the reader in this poem has told children lies before.  Such a sing-song nursery rhyme makes the tone uncanny, because Frost is discussing something more complex than a peck of gold.  As usual, we have to be careful with the difference in Frost's poetry between what it sounds like, and what he really is trying to convey.  Repetition lulls the mere onlooker into envisioning the ultimate American dream; however, the pleasant-enough sounding poem’s connotations are not always as nice as they sound.  Frost wrote in a letter to his good friend and critic, Louis Untermeyer, about getting, “more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate.”  He goes on to say, “I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious.”  Therefore, proving Frost’s poetry often has a double agenda and perhaps why I cling to this poem, because I understand the underlying meaning, and I still am fighting to keep my child-like innocence and dreams—and explain what Frost’s vision is for this poem.

        You could read this one of two ways: first, the poem is mocking the American dream—everyone knows dust really is not gold so get with the program and be realistic; or second, the poem is meant to elevate innocent dreams and the need for people to hold on to their dreams no matter their reality.  The second reading is more Frostian, because he captures the reality of the situation somewhat ironically, and chooses not to adhere to the real world’s solutions or opinions of the scenarios he depicts in his poetry.  He achieves this by undermining the poem, and making the reader decipher the true meaning in between the sentence sound Frost so loves to use.  In keeping with Frosts 's Puritanic vein and right wing political outlook, outwardly he addresses the need for people to dream realistically for practical purposes.  However, a closer look into his poem reveals Frost’s yearning to keep the child-like wonder alive.  He addresses capitalism and our ability to dream big, because democracy allows us the freedom of having an American Dream.  Frost undercuts this beautiful fairy-tale by forcing cruel irony to bare its ugly head.  Greed speaks unwittingly through our subconscious as we absorb the full impact of the poem.

        The last lines of the poem tell the child, “ We all must eat our peck of gold.”  Eating a peck of gold, one, does not sounds appetizing, and two, it just sounds petty.  This ending infuriates me that when adults lose their dreams they become mean, uncaring and selfish.  Children’s dreams should be nurtured—adults should always shelter children from the cruel hard-heartedness of the adult mind.

    One of the reasons why I like this poem so much are the emotions Frost evokes in me, and my own stubbornness to hang on to my fairytale—or golden—dreams.  The narrator, depending on the reader’s world-view, can be interpreted as either being angry and hurt about being lied to or impervious to the adult’s cruel (although subconscious) lie.  Frost does not tell us which way to interpret his poem; therefore, I will be direct and to the point of which interpretation stirs my feelings the most and is in keeping with Frost’s own world-view.  The child in the adult narrator realizes he has been told he must eat his peck of gold—or more literally his childhood fantasies.  Rather than remaining bitter about being lied to as a child, the grown-up narrator thrives in his adult life, because he still is able to make-believe the dust is gold.  In a world where most believe evil has been unleashed, God is not responding, and everything is deteriorating into complete chaotic disorder, the narrator remains steady and calm. Why?  He is an adult now and can choose whether or not to listen to the adult who told him to swallow his dreams.  He can remain at peace with himself and what life means to him, because he transcends the literal meaning in life to find the greatest purpose in life.  This especially makes sense, because Frost’s religious belief that God exists is inherent in his poetry.  Frost often is on a search to find the deeper meanings in life—“Peck of Gold” unlocks one of the doors to God when the child keeps emphatically declaring that the dust is really gold, that there are silver linings to every situation.  And in the adult narrator’s mind, he wants to remain the child believing dust is gold, because it brings him closer to absolute truth and beauty, and thus perfection and a glimpse at understanding the divine.  Being somewhat of a transcendentalist in my own personal beliefs, I believe that dust really is gold in one manner of speaking or another.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Michael Johnson
A Masque of Reason--Critical Reception

        J. Donald Adams of the New York Times Book Review put it best:  “Publication of [A Masque of Reason]… has set the reviewers to scratching their heads.”  Scratch they do, and debatably, the positive reviews skate by the negative, eight to seven.  Of the positive reviews, six are long winded and two are short.  Of the negative reviews, four are long winded and three are short.  The “positive” and “negative” labels, though, are not as simple as the preconceived notions of the words suggest.  Many of the critics have serious problems articulating coherent arguments, whatever the arguments may be.

        By the numbers, the most common reviews are the long and positive, and they share the following formula: bubbling flattery for an introduction or conclusion, near-complete plot summary, long, direct quotes, philosophical muses, and small slices of actual criticism of the play.  Of course, the positive critics tend to get creative from time to time, but they do not stray very far from the formula.

        Leonard Bacon of the Saturday Review of Literature leads the long and positive charge by mixing head scratching with Frost flattering.  He begins with, “This is a very strange poem,” and he scratches a few hairs off.  Then he lays it on thick: “Mr. Frost’s hand is as skilful [sic] and sure as ever.  And there is something aromatic in the work, Sabaean odors from the shore of an Araby along which he has not always chosen to cruise.”  (Whatever you say, Mr. Bacon.)  After a long plot summary, he offers a slice of useful criticism, touching base with “[t]he clash between fate and free will.”  However, Bacon lacks either the confidence or the understanding to touch base with much else, for he cannot resist to head scratch again: “… the reviewer is by no means convinced that he has read it aright [sic] or interpreted it properly.”  He ends with more Frost flattery: “The reviewer has had occasion before this to remark that Mr. Frost is not only a very wonderful poet but a very wise man.”

        The other long-winded, positive critics stray only in their philosophical muses and slices of criticism: Van Doren analyzes the humor and wit of AMOR, Shorer mentions metaphysics, entertainment, and philosophy, Untermeyer writes of the “half questing, half querulous search for ultimates,” and Whicher emphasizes man’s lesson of “submission to unreason.”  Unfortunately, these topics are but specks of gold in a shallow stream.  One needs a sifting pan, along with hours of time and piles of patience, to find them.

        As far as readability goes, the short and positive reviews are better than the long and positive.  Brevity eliminates flattery, plot summary, excessive quotation, and even most of the head scratching.  In the Christian Science Monitor, we find this concise statement: “Mr. Frost is hiding inside Job and asking God all the questions he would like to have answered.”  In Time, we confront the “embarrassing questions,” as when Job asks God, “Why did You hurt me so?”  (Frost, 381).  The Time author (not listed) answers the question with a short quote containing these lines: “There’s no connection man can reason out / Between his just desserts and what he gets.”

        The short and negative reviews, mostly due to refreshing splashes of bitterness, are more readable than the short and positive.  Anne Fremantle of the Commonweal ends with the acrid line: “The dust cover is delightful.”  Conraid Aiken of the New Republic calls AMOR “unrewardingly blank” without citing either a single character or line.  F. W. Dupee’s article in The Nation includes a sales pitch: “Holt, $2.”

        Despite their readability, the short and negative reviews sit on little, if any, foundation.  The long and negative reviews offer the most well-rounded approach to AMOR.  Leo Kennedy of the Chicago Sun Book Week playfully jabs the work (“Like measles in childhood… his sabbatical book”), but then he gets into a bit of serious thought.  (Of course, after long, direct quotes)  Kennedy writes how the characters, like Frost, settle “nothing” by play’s end.  Perhaps the critics should have paid more attention to this concept in their reviews.  Instead of “scratching their heads,” as J. Donald Adams wrote, they could have basked in the glory of waste and nothingness found in AMOR.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Brian Higgins
Critical Reception of A Witness Tree

        With little exception, the critical reception of Frost’s seventh book of poetry, A Witness Tree, was extremely favorable.  The critics approached the book with the assumption that Frost was a great contemporary American poet who was beyond his prime, and who would merely repeat Frostian ideals.  However, in their receptions, the critics appear pleasantly surprised.  The Frost they find in A Witness Tree is the same poet with increased richness, independence, and wisdom.  Almost every critic noted Frost’s move toward a more philosophical focus.  Marr Colum goes so far as to relate this aspect of the book to the type of poetry Yeats wrote late in his career:  “It is, to be sure, the philosophic lyric, that which Yeats also wrote in later life, and on which the reader has to set his mind working if he is to get the full significance of it.”   The poem most frequently cited as an example of the philosophical tint was “I Could Give All to Time.”  Reviewers especially liked the last stanza:

            I could give all to Time except-except
            What I myself have held. But why declare
            The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
            I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
            And what I would not part with I have kept.

        While the critics note a darker philosophical view than before, they comment that Frost still holds on to his youthful playfulness and humor that makes him so unique.  The quintessential poem for this idea is To a Young Wretch, which displays an ironic view toward Christmas:

            And though in tinsel chain and popcorn rope,
             My tree a captive in your window bay
            Help me accept its fate with Christmas feeling.

        A few of the critics commented that Frost is more honest toward himself in this volume and that he particularly captures that closeness with nature he is so renown for.  Come In is the critics’ most loved nature poem, in which Frost portrays the experience of standing at the edge of the woods at dusk.
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

            The last of the light of the sun
            That had died in the west
            Still lived for one song more
            In a thrush’s breast.

        The critics do not fail to note Frost’s amazing use of lyric within the volume  They absolutely love the mastery of language and lyric in the poem "The Silken Tent."  Katherine Bregy expresses her appreciation for Frost’s lyrical skill when she claims, “I, for one, did not suspect that he who was past master of free verse and the couplet could write so delicately inevitable a sonnet as Frost’s Silken Tent.” Other poems noted for their lyrical mastery are "The Most of It" and "The Subverted Flower."

        If there is any negativity at all in the critical reception it is with Frost’s attitude toward religion and society.  W.T. Scott rejects Frost’s political views:  “Frost is a political anarchist.  Frost is a believer not only in the imperfectness of man but also in the imperfectability if man (the same thing) of man’s society.”  He specifically attacks "The Lesson For Today," especially the ending, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”  However, many critics love this line, and claim it best portrays Frost as the philosophical poet in this volume.  Even W.T. Scott goes on to praise Frost for his individual style and his simplicity, which positively swings his criticism into an overall good review.  This makes it seem Scott only has a problem with the poetry because his views clash with Frost not because the poetry is bad in some way.

        One critic completely dismisses Frost.  Adam Margoshes makes this bold claim: “Frost himself is certainly nothing better than a semi-good poet-or a semi-poet.”  He even goes so far as to say, “If he is among the best we have in America today then what American poetry needs is a complete revolution.”  It is clear, however, that Adam Margoshes’ complaints are not simply about this volume of poetry; they are about Frost as a man and a poet overall.  He makes this clear when he attacks the poet as a person rather than the poetry.  His anger seems rooted in preconceived notions, not in the poetry itself.  Instead, Margoshes simply uses this volume of poetry as a chance to get on his soapbox and complain about larger problems he has with American poetry.  Yet, strangely enough, he never specifically states these complaints.

        Overall, A Witness Tree, at the time of publishing, was received very well.  Many of the critics feel the best poems in this volume stand out as the best poems Frost ever published.  This is quite exceptional for a poet publishing at age 67, but the critics seemed to be in agreement with literary scholars, because Frost won his fourth Pulitzer Prize for this volume.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Casey Kirkpatrick
A Witness Tree Response

        Frost starts his career as a poet with the poem "Into My Own," where he writes, “They would not find me changed from him they knew-/ only more sure of all I thought was true.”  This quote immediately struck me because I interpreted it as an arrogant boast by a neophyte poet who would eventually eat his words.  However, as we have read through a large portion of his poems, we have discovered that Frost does indeed remain true to many themes throughout his career.  Fittingly, one of the themes that is found over and over again in his poems is the cyclical nature of life.  In the essay I wrote earlier for the class, I talked about these cycles in the volume "North of Boston," citing poems like "The Mountain" and "The Black Cottage."

        I finally sense a break from the theme of cycles in A Witness Tree, specifically in "The Quest of the Purple-Fringed" and "Come In."  My first impulse after I read these poems was to label them as apocalyptic.  However, they are nothing like Once by the Pacific, which is Frost’s defining apocalyptic poem.  The word “quest” in the title of "The Quest of the Purple-Fringed" implies that there is a goal, but more importantly, an end.  The poem is reminiscent of Robert Browning’s "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," where the hero spends his life on a futile quest, and when he finally reaches the tower, it is not very impressive, and certainly not worth the sacrifices made to reach it.  In Frost’s quest poem, like Browning’s tale, most of the poem is dedicated to the journey itself.  When the narrator finally reaches the flower, he, “Looked, or at most/ Counted them all . . .”  The “at most” is an important phrase Frost nonchalantly injects into the stanza, and the two words imply that once the speaker gets to the flower, there is nothing much he can do with it, so he goes home.  Frost frequently gave the last stanza of his poems extra importance, and this poem is no exception.  He says, “And I for one/ Said that the fall might come and whirl of leaves,/ For summer was done.”  Frost feints like he is talking about a cycle when he mentions the fall, but he only says it “might come”- the ambiguity is too glaring to overlook without an explanation.  The last word, “done,” is the definitive line in the poem.  There is an end, not a cycle.

        The same theme can also be found in "Come In."  The very first line caught my eye- “As I came to the edge of the woods . . .”  Not only is the line reminiscent of the first stanza of the aforementioned "Into My Own" (and I won’t even mention the similarities in titles- that probably was not intentional, but with Frost it is sometimes hard to tell), but again the imagery implies an end with the word “edge.”  The middle stanza of this poem is most important for my argument.  It reads:

                                      “The last light of the sun
                                      That had died in the west
                                      Still lived for one song more
                                      In a thrush’s breast.”

Again, there is no cycle implied at the end of the day, which until A Witness Tree came out, seemed to be the norm with Robert Frost. The argument that the light still lived in the breast of the thrush and therefore implies that the sun will rise again is easily countered by pointing out Frost’s detail that it lives only for “one song more.”

        The argument that I make seems to be perhaps overly analytical and based only on the connotations of a few lines of poetry.  However, I think this small change is important in the evolution of Frost’s works.  Frost was sixty-eight years old when this volume is published, and with all the deaths in his family, not to mention World War II, between A Further Range and A Witness Tree, it would not come as a surprise if Frost had mortality on his mind.  Although he lived for another twenty years, he was probably spending a lot of time realizing that he only had a limited number of cycles left, and this shows through in his poetry.  At the same time he changes one of the themes he often uses, his beliefs do not change, and he is still not changed from him we knew.
 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Amy Dessureault
Robert Frost--A Poet of Contradictions

        In the collection, A Further Range, Robert Frost has again shown that he is a poet of contradictions.  In previous volumes, Frost comments about actions he desires to take, but there is generally always a contradiction between how he desires to act and how he acts.  For example in “Sound of Trees,” Frost comments, “I shall set forth for somewhere, / I shall make the reckless choice” (150); however, Frost has not taken the action and is only saying that he will take the action.  Frost appears to be unwilling to take any definite action which is reckless or risks the criticism of others.  Repeatedly in his poetry, Frost is unwilling to admit his position, and instead sits on the fence.  Often when he appears to give the reader a glimpse of his view of the world and his opinions, he undercuts it, providing the reader with doubt as to the strength of his beliefs.  His unwillingness to take a definite position might stem from a lack of self-assurance and self-identity.  Repeatedly, Frost tries to define his identity through his poetry.  He writes about names and questions the significance of names, exploring the natural phenomenon of frost in “Mending Wall.”  Similarly, in many of his poems, for example “A Hillside Thaw,” he seeks to define himself as a poet, oftentimes writing about an internal struggle between his masculine and feminine characteristics and styles of writing which are in conflict.

        In A Further Range, Frost’s insecurity remains as he debates in his poetry whether or not to write about the political realm; however, Frost contradicts his previous desires and takes what in his mind would be considered a risk and involves himself in the political debate.  However, while writing about politics, Frost, at points, gives clear criticism, yet at other times, undercuts what he says.  Up until the publication of his collection A Further Range, Frost had insisted that he would not write poems that involved themselves in politics, yet Frost contradicts the way he desires to act as a poet by writing about politics in his poetry in this section.  In the poem “In Divés Dive,” Frost directly states that he does not want to become involved in discussions of politics, stating: “But still I am steady and unaccusing” and “It is nothing to me who runs the Dive” (283).  He links the poem to the political realm through the use of the word declaration and basically says it does not matter to him who is the president or who is in charge.  While Frost states that he is going to resist involving himself in the political discussion, it appears that he again debates the issue of writing poetry about politics in “Build Soil:”

                        The question is whether they’ve reached a depth
                         Of desperation that would warrant poetry’s
                         Leaving love’s alternations, joy and grief,
                         The weather’s alternations, summer and winter,
                         Our age-long theme, for the uncertainty
                         Of judging who is a contemporary liar–
                         Who in particular, when all alike
                         Get called as much in clashes of ambition.
                         Life may be tragically bad, and I
                         Make bold to sing it so, but do I dare
                         Name names and tell you who by name is wicked? (290)

        Frost admits he is unwilling to risk himself and his poetry career by naming names or disclosing what is wrong in politics, yet he discusses the harsh realities of life, presenting a clear image of the Great Depression and its affects on the American people in “A Lone Striker”:

                        There was a law of God or man
                         That on the one who came too late
                         The gate for half an hour be locked,
                         His time be lost, his pittance docked.
                         He stood rebuked and unemployed. (249).

        In the poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost captured another view of the unemployment present during the Depression, as men wandered the country seeking work:

                        Nothing on either side was said.
                        They knew they had but to stay their stay
                         And all their logic would fill my head:
                         As that I had no right to play
                         With what was another man’s work for gain.
                         My right might be love but theirs was need.
                         And where the two exist in twain.
                         Theirs was the better right–agreed. (252)

         However, while showing the harsh realities of life during the early 1930s, Frost still claims that he does not want to become involved in discussions of politics and prefers:

                                    . . .to sing safely in the realm
                         Of types, composite and imagined people:
                         To affirm there is such a thing as evil
                         Personified, but ask to be excused
                         From saying on a jury ‘Here’s the guilty.’ (290)

        Yet by 1932, he begins writing about politics in his poetry.  He seems finally to take the risk that he always claims he will take but never does.  It appears that he has decided that the Depression and the state of America reached a level where he wanted to contribute encouragement.  Frost wanted people to work to support themselves, saying in “Build Soil:” “Plant, breed, produce, / But what you raise or grow, why feed it out, Eat it or plow it under where it stands / To build the soil” (295).  Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cabinet originally created programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority to support farmers who were struggling to continue farming their farms.  However after reelection in 1936, Roosevelt’s New Deal policies changed, and he established the welfare system and social security.  Though a Democrat, like Roosevelt, Frost fought against the changes in Roosevelt’s politics:

                          Do I submit to being supplied by him
                         As the more economical producer,
                         More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
                         No. I unostentatiously move off
                         Far enough for my thought flow to resume.
                         Thought product and food product are to me
                         Nothing compared to the producing of them. (296)

        Frost spurs the American people not to fall into the idleness of accepting the easy handout, criticizing Roosevelt in “To a Thinker” saying:

                        The last step taken found your heft
                         Decidedly upon the left.
                         One more would throw you on the right.
                         Another still– you see your plight.
                         You call this thinking, but it’s walking.
                         Not even that, it’s only rocking. (298)

            Roosevelt’s shift in policies greatly upset Frost to the point that it is questionable whether he stooped to the level of criticizing Roosevelt personally.  Both the poems “Waspish” and “One Guess” make references to a physical frame supported by wires and “a leg akimbo” (282), which could be referring to Roosevelt’s physical handicap.  While it is not clear whether Frost criticized Roosevelt personally, he strongly criticized Roosevelt and his policies, particularly the welfare system.  In the version of “Provide, Provide” which he read before certain congressmen, he argued against the welfare state, saying:

                        Better to go down dignified
                         With boughten friendship at your side
                         Than none at all.  Provide, provide!
                         Or someone will provide for you. (280)

        While Frost criticized the safety net that the welfare state provided, he was, you could argue, a hypocrite.  He had a safety net of his own, a $800 per month stipend from his grandfather that provided him with the initial jump start for his poetry career.

        Though different in the sense of touching political aspects, the poetry of A Further Range is not that different from Frost’s previous collections.  Frost continues to undercut his poetry.  For example in “Build Soil,” he undercuts the ending where Meliboeus doesn’t follow Tityrus’ advice, being discouraged because Tityrus is wiser.  “You’re far too fast and strong/ For my mind to keep working in your presence” (296).   Through his political discussions, Frost’s aim is not to manipulate politics but to convince people to change themselves and adapt or resist the world situation.  In this sense, he only touches the edge of the political realm, not totally going against his desire to stay away from “naming names,” though at points he breaks this with his criticism of Roosevelt.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Brian Higgins
Terror and Beauty in “Come In”

        Lionel Trilling described Frost as being a poet of terror, and many of his readers were up in arms over such a slander.  Even Frost himself was somewhat troubled by such a title.  Other scholars, Ransom for instance, claimed this had always been apparent.  In fact, it was so obvious, it needed not be stated so bluntly.  This strange contrast in critical opinion creates an interesting dilemma.  On one side, there is the group of readers who see Frost as the sweet, wise poet, while on the other are those who view him as a poet of terror and fear.  After some reflection, this contrast in reading Frost’s poetry is not surprising at all, because Frost seems to flirt with both ideas simultaneously.  Often, as in “Rose Pogonias,” Frost will tap into nature and all its beauty and comfort.  “Where winds were quite excluded, and the air was stifling sweet with the breath of many flowers,- a temple of the heat.  Yet, at the same time, he also hints toward fear of the unknown and the darker side of nature.  However, typically Frost does not go so deep into either idea that he seems to assert one more than the other.

        Perhaps one of the best examples of this juxtaposition of beauty and fear occurs in the poem “Come In.”  In this poem, Frost, rather typically takes form in two distinctly different voices.  His first voice is that of the narrator who has stopped at the edge of the woods.  The second is the voice of a thrush, whose song becomes the voice of the poet: “As I came to the edge of the woods, Thrush music—hark!”  Thus, within the first two lines of the poem, Frost has separated himself into two personalities, the traveler and the poet.  Moreover, he has tapped into nature in an intriguing way.  The traveler has stopped at the edge of the woods.  He’s not in the woods, and the woods are not in the distance.  He is right on the edge.  Already, in the first two lines, Frost has created the dichotomy of beauty and terror.  Intriguingly, in addition to creating the tension between the two, by the end of the poem, Frost magically merges the two into a sort of association, similar to “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” where they cannot exist independently.  The narrator can see the woods, and hear the beauty within in the form of a bird’s song.  However, the narrator has not gone so far as to go into the woods.  Thus, he does not know exactly what lies within.  This instantly portrays a hint of something unknown, which can turn into something terrifying:

        The next two lines further this idea of the fear that comes with the unknown and the darker side of nature: “Now if it was dusk outside, inside was dark.”  By choosing the word dark, Frost adds a connotation of fear, for it is not nearly as dark outside as it is inside the woods.

        In the next stanza, the narrator makes a claim that it is too dark for the bird to even maneuver to a better spot on its tree or bush to be comfortable for the night.  (Which is, of course, only the narrator’s imagination of the thrush’s predicament, because he cannot actually see the thrush through the darkness.) Yet, it is not so dark that the bird cannot sing his song:

                    Too dark in the woods for a bird
                    By sleight of wing
                    To better its perch for the night,
                    Though it still could sing.

This stanza is where the bird comes to be understood as representing the poet, and Frost speaks directly toward the very dichotomy of nature and fear.  It is dark for the poet, so dark, that it is not comfortable to move.  On the other hand the poet finds some sort of comfort in writing his poetry, and the poetry speaks toward this fear and comfort.  Frost recognizes that there is some aspect of terror that comes with nature and the unknown, as well as in writing poetry for the world to read.  Thus, he does not attempt to go too far with this theme.  However, he still recognizes that the terror is there, and it will be evident in his writing.

        In the next stanza, Frost begins by speaking of the sun having passed well over the horizon, bringing darkness in its absence: “The last of the light of the sun that had died in the west.”  There are many possible meanings applicable to this description, but perhaps one of the better ones relates to biographical information.  This volume appeared in 1941, so Frost probably wrote most of the poems around the age of sixty-seven.  It seems likely that Frost has taken on a reflective tone, as he looks back on his life and his work.  His time has grown short and will not last too much longer.  Yet, he does not feel that his work his done.  He still has some great poetry left in him, which he reveals in the next too lines: “Still lived for one song more in a thrush’s breast.”  Still, there is something terrifying about knowing there is not long to live, just as there is something beautiful yet terrifying about the sun going down.  One can hear this fear in the poetry, just as the narrator hears it in the thrush’s song.  Yet, the thrush continues to sing, and through this song, the light from the sun somehow remains, which is comforting in a way.  Similarly, Frost continues to write his poetry, which has some fear within it, but is also pleasing.

        The next stanza is interesting in the tone that the thrush’s song takes.

                    Far in the pillared dark
                    Thrush music went-
                    Almost like a call to come in
                    To the dark and lament.

The thrush’s song “almost” takes on human tones.  It travels through the terror of the darkness to beckon and speak to the narrator, asking him to come in and feel his grief and sorrow.  In this way the poet’s words can make the dark not so terrifying and can bring you inside to feel what it is like to be in the dark.  However, the modifier “almost” is the Frostian way of disclaiming and separating the terror from the reader so that the totality of his own terror does not completely show.  He continues this separation of the poet and the narrator in the final stanza:

                    But no, I was out for stars:
                    I would not come in.
                    I meant not even if asked,
                    And I hadn’t been.

The last stanza completes the separation and joining of fear and beauty.  The narrator decides the call to come in is not for him.  Moreover, the narrator never intended to go into the woods: he was out to see the stars.  Thus, the narrator will not travel into the darkness.  This is a vital decision in the poem.  Frost has shown the beauty of nature inside the forest, and he has shown it through the song of the thrush.  Paradoxically, through the same song, the narrator senses sorrow and discomfort.  Through the narrator’s view of standing at the edge of the dark woods, Frost has also shown the darkness that comes with the unknown.  In the end, the narrator chooses not to go into the woods to show us what the thrush sees and feels.  In this way, Frost rides the fence so to speak.  He has taken us to the edge of the metaphor where beauty meets terror, seemingly joining the two into one association, but he is not willing to take the reader all the way in.  In fact, he never intended to; he is out for other purposes.  Instead, he only gives a brief glimpse of what it looks like from the outside, and only hints of what the poet sees on the inside.

        This poem and its representation of Frost’s use of metaphor demonstrates how critics might view Frost as a poet of terror.  Terror is packed inside this poem.  One of Frost’s voices, the narrator senses terror as he stands on the outside of the dark woods.  He also hears terror in the voice of the thrush.  At the same time, Frost’s other voice, that of the thrush, sings a song that hints toward fear, at least through the ears of the narrator.  Yet, there is still beauty in his song as well, because it serves to keep the light of the sun metaphorically shining in the darkness, and there is comfort in this.  Thus, it is clear how the critics might see Frost as a nature poet of beauty, comfort, and wisdom.  However, perhaps the best claim a critic can make is that Frost is a complex poet who presents aspects of both terror and beauty.  Moreover, the reader is safe in the hands of Frost’s wisdom as a poet, because he will never take you too close to either.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Martin Lewis-Gonzalez
Nature-as-Human in Frost Poetry

        Interlaced in what many critics consider to be Frost’s political volume of poetry, A Witness Tree, readers can find a number of apolitical topics that tie the volume together.  One of these subtopics is the idea of nature, through the presence of weather, taking on the characteristics of man.  Such poems as “Willful Homing,” “The Wind and the Rain” and “Our Hold on the Planet” typify this strain.  These poems deal with the characterization of weather in a manner quite different from how it is typically identified.  The presence of weather in poetry is often identified with the will of a deity, either in mercifully granting life, or vengefully causing harm.  Robert Frost, in this volume, gives this idea of nature a much more down-to-earth and human spin.
Frost directly addresses this issue in “Our Hold on the Planet.”  He begins the poem with mans’ self-destructive plea for a violent storm.  But in an ironic and unexpected twist Frost lets us know that “It (nature) didn’t lose its temper at our demand and blow a gale.”  On the contrary, “it gently threw us a glittering shower down.”  This seemingly contradictory reaction to mankind’s demands, in this context, is a very human response.  Thus nature is reflecting mankind’s own erratic unpredictability.  The flippant, and unpredictable results, created by mans’ cries on earth, a parallel how his own nature can at times defy logic or reason.

        This humanistic response from nature can further be seen in “Willful Homing.”  The first hint that Frost is acting on this response is the personification of the blizzard.  As his protagonist struggles towards his home, the storm “blinds him,” “gets down his neck in an icy souse” and “sucks his breath like a wicked cat in bed.”  This idea is continued with the expression of the storm’s maliciously playful intent:
                    The snow blows on and off him, exerting force
                    Downward to make him sit astride a drift.
                    Imprint a saddle and calmly consider a course.
                    He peers out shrewdly into the thick and swift.

        It is as though the storm is his adversary in a childish game designed to keep him from getting home.  In order to get there the man must apply a certain level of cunning to outwit the mischievous blizzard.  I say it seems like a game because of the lack of any real danger involved.  The blizzard itself is more of a hindrance than a threat to his safety: “Since he means to come to a door he will come to a door.”

        In this fashion the storm sheds the generic mantle of a looming menace, and replaces it with the characteristics of a young prankster who attempts to, but cannot fully, divert the man from his destination.  It is not a formless horror, but merely an ethereal joker with which man has to contend.  The poem, with this image, again reflects mankind since many an individual has been known to fit this description.

        The last of the three, “The Wind and the Rain,” brings yet a third aspect of this “nature-as-human” idea.  Here Frost, as the narrator, seems not content to have nature mimic mankind.  Instead he wants to actively take control of nature so that he can use the forces of weather in a more applicable manner:

                    I would pick up all ocean less its salt,
                    And though it were as much as cloud could bear
                    Would load it on to cloud,
                    And rolling it inland on roller air,
                    Would empty it unsparingly on the flower
                    That past its prime lost petals in the flood.

In taking control of nature and stating that there is room for improvement, Frost identifies it as imperfect.  This imperfection is what humanizes the forces of nature.  Just as man is capable of error, so too is nature in this poem.  It is for this reason that Frost must wrestle control from nature in order to precipitate the cleansing and punishing showers that he seeks, towards the end of the poem.

        Robert Frost is not content to restate the overused clichés of past poets. Rather than identifying nature in the same overused characterization, he reaches for something new.  The idea of nature, and the weather she produces, as being controlled by human-like forces is a far cry from the deified perspective of old.  Rather than being the stern hand of an all mighty god, weather is the human result of nature’s flawed attempts at perfection.  In this fashion, Frost mirrors mankind, in nature, as a means of tying the two together.  Nature can thus take on the characteristics of man, just as he can find much of himself in Her.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Pat O'Connor
A Further Range of Understanding

    In A Further Range, Frost uses parenthetical expressions in fourteen out of the volume’s fifty poems that seem to give glimpses of clarity in meaning upon a first reading.  Normally I think of parenthetical expressions as a clue dropped by an author to gain intimacy and insight into whatever problem the particular work addresses.  One feels more in tune with the author or narrator’s intentions through these expressions just as the audience at a play feels like they are getting a piece of secret and revealing information when an actor speaks an aside directly to them.  In many of these fourteen poems, Frost does in fact add information or tone through these expressions that help the reader ascertain meaning in the poem.  In a few of the fourteen, however, he only gives the illusion of clarity through the use of parenthetical expressions.  A careful examination of these few poems shows that the expressions actually carry each poem further away from clear and simple meaning.

        Frost brings power and intimacy that reinforce the meaning of many of the fourteen poems through the use of parenthetical expressions.  Even though this venue is too brief to examine all of the poems that fit in this category, a couple representative examples will demonstrate what these expressions add to many of the poems.  One of the simpler parenthetical expressions is within “Provide, Provide” where Frost writes in the first line “The witch that came (the withered hag)…”  Here the expression does nothing but support the imagery of a movie actress who has fallen from grace and lost her beauty and fame.   Another example is found in “Roadside Stand.”  Frost enters the parenthetical expression “(this crossly)” two times in the poem each to describe the tone of the words spoken by those who own the country stand.  Although this poem is rich and complex in meaning, the parenthetical expressions only help to reinforce and make clear the sorrow and pain that is felt by the people of the roadside stand.   To say that these parenthetical expressions are part of simplistic poems would be grossly incorrect.  The poems are complicated and rich in meaning, but the parenthetical expressions, in these cases, only help the reader to better understand the poems; or at the very least, the expressions themselves do not add puzzling or complicated elements to the poems.
        There are also a few poems where the parenthetical expressions appear to have been deliberately inserted by Frost in order to increase the complexity of meaning.  The parenthetical expression in “A Drumlin Woodchuck” seems simple at a first reading.  It describes the hunt and double-barreled shotgun blast “(Like war and pestilence/And the loss of common sense).”  The statement seems to merely help give the reader an image for the violence and threat-level of the hunter for this woodchuck.  A closer examination reveals the complexity of this statement.  It brings a human aspect to the poem, which suggests that the “woodchuck” is actually a man who is cutting himself off from the world in order to deal with the problems mentioned in the expression.  This is the first point in the poem where a human element is specifically mentioned, and it therefore opens up the poem for a much wider range of interpretation.

        The parenthetical expression in “Not All There” is a somewhat puzzling addition to the poem.  The first-person character (or Frost himself) states “God turned to speak to me/(Don’t anybody laugh)/God found I wasn’t there--/ At least not over half.”  His intent behind this expression may seem simple at first.  He does not want anybody to laugh at him for complaining that God was not there for him and then not being there for God.  This statement, however, adds a very complex element to the poem.  It raises several possibilities in interpretation such as the possibility that Frost wanted to add a lighter tone to the poem because the first stanza is so full of despair.  By telling the audience not to laugh, he is revealing the possibility that people may want to laugh at whatever information follows the statement.  Another possibility is that he is commenting on humanity’s inability to understand or effectively sympathize with a fellow human’s pain. (Super point!)  These are just two of some very different interpretations that one can make for this poem simply because of the parenthetical expression.

        The expressions in “Clear and Colder” are almost baffling.  The grammar in the first one alone makes it difficult to decipher, “(This like fate by stars is reckoned,/None remaining in existence/ Under magnitude the second).”  The expression helps support the tone of magic and sorcery set forth by the reference to witches in the first stanza, but the actual meaning of the expression itself is very difficult to capture and leaves one puzzled.  The second expression “(All my eye and Cotton Mather)” is a relatively obscure reference to a man who favored the Salem witch trials and then later said they were unfair.  This information is included in the endnotes, but the average person reading this poem would most likely have no clue who Cotton Mather was.  Frost makes the poem much more difficult to interpret with the additions of these two parenthetical expressions.

        When I say that the majority of parenthetical expressions in A Further Range don’t complicate the poems, I am not saying that these particular poems have obvious or simple meanings.  I am only saying that the parenthetical expression itself does not complicate the meaning in those poems.  In the few poems where Frost deliberately adds a parenthetical expression to increase the complexity of the poem, he is having fun with the readers and asking them to look very closely at that particular point of the poem.  Normally, a parenthetical expression seems like an intimate addition by the author to give the reader key or important information.  In a few of the poems such as “A Drumlin Woodchuck,” “Not All There,” and “Clear and Colder,” Frost initially deceives the reader by giving them a piece of information in a mode that is normally used to clear up confusion, yet the statement itself only adds confusion or at least complexity in interpretation.  It is not surprising that Frost would spend much of his time using these expressions for tone and imagery purposes, and then take a few and make them key instigators of complexity. He always tried to only allow people who read his poetry very carefully to wholly understand the meanings of his poems.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Michael Johnson
The Split Personality of A Boy's Will

        The first two poems of Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will, “Into My Own” and “Ghost House,” tell very different tales.  “Into My Own” delves into the human mind and races through a fantastic daydream of both “the self” and others.  “Ghost House” muses on loneliness, nature, and what has come and gone.  Underneath their surface subjects, though, the two poems share a complex look at a struggling mind, for the narrator repeatedly encounters contradictions and paradoxes.  While there are few unbending concepts in either poem, one thing stands clear: at every turn, the narrator’s split personality lives on.

        The title “Into My Own” contains two possessive words: “my” and “own.”  “My” appears again in lines 1 and 10, “I” appears in 6, 9 (twice), 12, and 14, and “me” appears in 11 (twice) and 13.  These words show the narrator’s consumption with possession and “the self.”  He wants to “steal away” into the trees, and while he uses “steal” in the desperate, escapist sense, the careful reader should pause at the secondary, possessive meaning (6).  In terms of the self, even when the narrator muses about others, he makes it clear to relate “them” to “him.”  It is “my track,” he says, and he wonders if they “should miss me”  (10,11).  “Their” track does not exist, and he only mentions his feelings toward others when he wonders if the nameless “they” will “long to know if still I held them dear” (12).  In this sense, the narrator seems obsessed with himself, but the perceptions of others actually fuel his obsession.

        The poem’s title and last two lines add to the self vs. others struggle of obsession.  The title, “Into My Own,” should beg the question, “from where?”  The logical predecessor phrase should be, “Out of Other’s Own,” thus adding to the power that other people wield in the narrator’s psyche.  Similarly, the last two lines imply that the narrator is not satisfied with himself, for he wants to improve, to become “more sure” (14).  This improvement, though, has nothing to do with healthy self-criticism; instead, it directly relates to when the others “find him” not “changed,” but “more sure” (13, 14).

        While he is careful to put “not” in front of “find,” the word “find” implies a sense of hiding or being lost.  The “mask of gloom” in line 3 supports the small but important theme of hiding, for one hides behind a mask in order to escape the eyes of others (reality).  Similar to the “not find” phrase in line 13, “not” precedes “mask” in line 3.  This negation adds to the confusion and denial of the narrator, who struggles with the thoughts of others, with what he does and does not “have,” and with what he wants to become.  All he really has is “wishes,” and this is a sign of his displeasure with himself, others, and reality (1).

        Building on the concept of reality, the self vs. others contradiction clouds the narrator’s mind and leaves “Into My Own” sitting on a tangle of fantasy and reality.  In line 1, the poem starts with the phrase: “One of my wishes…”  The poem ends with: “… all I thought was true”  (14).  The “wishes” clash with “true” because wishes represent a passion-filled fantasy, while something true embodies a cold, undeniable fact of reality.  Though nearly the entire poem is a daydream (fantasy) that the narrator hopes to enact “some day,” the mention of “truth” brings a clashing, concrete reality to the poem’s end.

        “Ghost House” furthers key themes found in “Into My Own.”  Without wasting time, the narrator starts “Ghost House” with “I dwell” and repeats this phrase in line 9.  In line 1, he dwells in a “lonely house,” which relates to the poem’s title, “Ghost House.”  Comparing “Ghost House” to “lonely house,” “ghost” equals “lonely.”  If one takes “ghost” to mean a dead person, then to be dead is to be lonely.  Conversely, to be alive is to be accompanied.  The jarring, contradictory thing about the poem is that the narrator, while physically alive, is actually dead because he has no company.  The “lass and lad” under “[t]hose [grave]stones,” while physically dead, are “sweet companions,” and thus alive (22, 19, 24).

        To make up for his loneliness, the narrator feebly interjects himself into the surrounding world.  Aside from the two “I dwell” comments, he also muses that “I hear [the whippoorwill]” and “ I know not who these mute folk are”  (11, 18).  The narrator also states that “these mute folk… / … share the unlit place with me”  (18,19).  No symbiotic, give-and-take, true sharing exists, though, for the narrator only sits couched among his own observations.  In addition to commenting on the “mute folk,” he merely observes the life (whippoorwill) and death (gravestones) around him.

        Of course, aside from the life and death observations, the shallow reference to sharing and the “I” interjections serve as mere appendages of “Ghost House.”  The true meat lies in the paradox of presence and absence, which fleshes out the split personality of the narrator.  The paradox begins in the first two lines of the poem, for he “know[s]” of a “lonely house” that “vanished” (1, 2).  Thus, it seems like he knows “something,” (and thus a kind of presence) but he really only knows of what vanished, what does not exist anymore; he knows “nothing” (an absence of something).  The narrator complements this presence/absence paradox in line 3, when he says that the house “left no trace but the cellar walls.”

        To rephrase, the house did, in fact, leave a trace, and the trace was the cellar walls.  Breaking this thought down, the house was once seen as a physical presence, but since it vanished, it is now seen as an absence.  The trace it leaves may be seen as an absence at first glance, but it is actually a residue presence to remind observers of the original presence.  Finally, the cellar walls are a physical presence, but they are also boundaries that “house” an absence (nothing), like an empty clay pot.
The “daylight falls” phrase of line 4 follows with another presence/absence twist, for the connotation of “light” greatly contrasts with “fall.”  “Light,” or the presence of goodness, clashes with “fall,” which alludes to Adam and Eve’s break with the ultimate light or goodness, God.  In the Gospels, Jesus embodies God as “The Light of the World;” also, “light” relates to “sight” in both rhyme and meaning, for light entering the eyes allows for sight to take place.  Conversely, no light (no God) equals darkness and no sight.  Paradoxically, since Adam can be seen as a “boy” when compared to God, the “boy’s will” of Adam clashes with “God’s will” when Adam eats of the apple.  Adam’s eyes were open to the light (fuller sight), and as a result, he and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden (they could no longer “see” the Garden, or God).  This play on “daylight falls” adds to our understanding of the narrator’s struggling mind.

        Going back to the “ghost” equals “lonely” equals “dead” relationship, Frost may have chosen the title “Ghost House” over “Dead House” because of the presence/absence paradox of the word “ghost.”  A ghost, while indeed a dead person, implies a spirit living on in the afterlife, such as a white-sheeted spook haunting the attic.  Thus, even in death, (the absence of life) a contradictory presence of life exists.

        The paradoxes found in the first two poems of A Boy’s Will may seem unrelated at first glance, but their differences only add to their core similarity.  That is, the narrator struggles with a split personality.  In “Into My Own,” he befriends negation and outlines an ego obsession that relates to the thoughts of others.  He also begins the poem with fantasy and ends with reality.  In “Ghost House,” the narrator confronts the relationships of life and death, presence and absence, and sight and blindness.  Readers might not see these paradoxes all at once, but that is part of the beauty of Frost.  Multiple readings yield multiple meanings, and without such a multiplicity, the poems would be constant and one-dimensional.  Without multiplicities in life, humankind would be constant and one-dimensional as well.  Thus, while the narrator’s split personality may be disturbing at times, it helps usher a full human perspective into the first two poems of A Boy’s Will.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Michael Johnson
Diving Deep Into "November"

        A close, careful read of Robert Frost’s poem “November,” found in A Witness Tree, yields a cache of allusions, recursive references, and complex meanings.  While some meanings contradict and others flow together seamlessly, all meanings combine in a tour de force of a poem that tackles a number of heavyweight themes.  The themes include: science and the time-space continuum, “the fall,” the sound of words, waste, Mammon, and man vs. nature.  With such a cornucopia of themes in a relatively short poem (15 lines), a deep dive into “November” becomes necessary for even a basic understanding.  Though a line-by-line and word-by-word analysis may seem random at times, this randomness clues readers into the very fullness of life in "November."

        “November,” a poem of one stanza, begins with the line: “We saw leaves go to glory[.]”  Before any other thought or word, the nameless “we” establishes a general companionship that is more comfortable than solitude.  “Saw” relates to sight and the eyes.  “ I saw it with my own eyes,” or, “My life flashed before my eyes,” one might say.  This implies an elevated importance, a slow-motion Godsend that forces the observer to notice minute details.  “[L]eaves” going “to glory” relates to when leaves change color during the “fall” season.  Soon after they change color from drab green to brilliant hues of red, orange, or yellow, they fall from a tree, twirling through the air like streamers.  They float and flitter and wheel, as in slow motion.  The “go to glory” phrase adds a wrinkle to this otherwise pleasant image, though, because if something is rising to glory (growing brilliantly colored), then it must have risen up from something less than glory.  However, the leaves are “falling,” alluding to Adam and Eve’s fall from God, so they are going from a high state of being to a low.  Thus, the “glory” lies only in the visual beauty of the leaves.  The sadness and tragedy lies in the symbolic meaning of such a fall, because a tragedy is a fall from “glory” to misfortune.

        The second line, “Then almost migratory,” describes foreshadowing instead of paradoxes.  “Then” implies a fluid flow, a quickness of movement.  “[A]lmost” is a Frostian trademark, adding uncertainty and doubt to the line.  “[M]igratory” implies the movement of the birds, a seasonal coming and going to escape the cold.  A “leaving” of the birds, if you will, to relate back to the “leaves” of the trees.  This combination of nature imbues a light, windy feel to both the birds and the leaves.  To borrow from Ecclesiastes 2:17, “all is vanity and chasing after the wind.”  The concept of vanity also relates to waste and vain human beings, which will be covered frequently by the narrator in later lines.

        The third line, “Go part way down the lane,” relates back to both the first and the second line.  “Go” implies activity, paralleling the “go” in line one.  “[P]art way” reminds us of “almost” of line two.  “[D]own” is interesting because it contains multiple meanings.  One meaning is that of down feathers, which relate to “leaves” in physical makeup and in ability to be swept away by “the wind.”   Another meaning of “down” is that of a horizontal movement “down the lane,” but the earlier reference to “going [down] to glory” should cause the careful reader to pause and think of Adam and Eve’s vertical “fall down.”  Finally, “the lane” sits chock-full of meaning because a “lane” is so much more than just a path.  Rather, it has commercial, human, rat-race connotations, and it relates to the traffic/passing lanes for cars in the street, planes in the sky, ships on the ocean, swimmers in the pool, and runners on the track.  Even in the old-fashioned sense of “lane,” Merriam Webster’s 10th Edition explains that a lane is “a narrow passageway between fences or hedges.”  The fences or hedges are man-made excess, paralleling the excess and waste of the rat race and competition of humanity.  Mammon makes its cameo appearance in “November” with the mention of the “lane” and extrapolation to waste, only to return again in later lines.

        The fourth line, “And then to end the story,” rivals line one with its depth of paradoxes.  “And then” reminds us of the “[t]hen” of line two, the fluidity and quickness of movement.  However, the “end” of line four brings an unexpected abruptness to the reading.  “[T]he story” also carries a certain lightheartedness that clashes with the weighty issues of “the fall” from earlier lines.  “Story” implies a bedtime story, as a parent would read to a child.  (A doting mother hovers over the bed as her child whines, “Tell me a bedtime story!”)  A story might not be real, for it could be a fantasy or whimsical fable.  Conversely, a story could be a part of history, a tale passed down the generations to preserve “the truth.”  Regardless of this ambiguity, the narrator leaves line four with “story” and moves on.

        The fifth line, “Get beaten down and pasted,” directly references both the first and the third lines.  The first could read, “go [down] to glory,” and the third does read, “[g]o part way down.”  Line five adds to this downward spiral with, “[g]et beaten down.”  The “[g]et” also parallels the active “go”s of lines one and three.  The word “beaten” implies violence, brutality, and punishment.  Though God did not exert physical violence on Adam and Eve, he did punish them for violating his trust, for plucking the fruit (among the “leaves”) from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17).

        The word “pasted” also adds multiple meanings to the line.  One reading of “pasted” adds violence to “beaten down,” and a second reading hints at the futility of all things physical, of the Mammon world that man has created and worshipped.  The “leaves” lose their original strength and metaphorically “fall” to a “paste,” an “almost” state of matter between liquid and solid.  Furthermore, “paste” provides an excellent example of a deceiving, Mammon-filled life, for paste loses its original luster and fluidity in anything but the most ideal of conditions.  Specifically, when paste or glue is taken out of the bottle and applied, it loses its flexible properties.  Likewise, when the man-made and Mammon-infested pleasant and ideal conditions of earthly existence are replaced with death, human life will be reduced and lowered to “paste,” or “dust.”  In Genesis 3:19, one finds that, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  In this sense, the narrator’s use of the word “pasted” offers hope, for despite Mammon faults, “we” become drawn into the dust (paste)-filled cycle of life, death, and renewal (“return”).

        The sixth line, “In one wild day of rain,” couples nature with unrelenting power.  In terms of sound, though, “one wild” rolls off the tongue with ease because the sound of “one” is really that of “won,” which flows together with “wild.”  “Won” implies victory, and since the “leaves” (man’s Mammon, rat race, passing “lane,” competitive accumulation) are definitely the “losers” (that which “falls”) in the “story” (the game of life), the “winner” is nature (that which punishes).  Focusing on literal meaning, though, “one” adds concentration to “wild day,” for not only is nature all-mighty and powerful; it is also knows when to be excessive (“wild”) and when to be prudent (“one”) while doling out punishments (“beatings” and “pastings”).  In the Bible, one finds: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  Thus, nature keeps “time” and the cycle of life in mind when raining.

        When reading about wild days of rain, though, the careful reader should pause and recall the “story” of Noah and the Ark, in which God punished (“beat,” “pasted”) the non-Noah supported life by raining (destroying) them “down” into “paste” (“dust”).  The non-Noah supported life had “fallen” from God’s good graces, much like Adam and Eve had fallen in Eden (paralleling the “falling down” of lines one, three, and five).  Furthermore, the “wild rain” of line six comes “down” from the same place that all rain comes from, which is the sky, or “heavens ” (God).  Also related to God in line six is the apocalyptic power of nature, because like the forty days and forty nights of the Great Flood, the “wild rains” of “November” “fall” for one day.  By no means does this one day elevate the power of nature to that of God, since nature can ravage man in a shorter time span.  Rather, the one day of rain shows that despite not being God, nature can still exert massive power.

        Another important thing to note about the “wild day of rain” is that it takes place during the day.  Daytime implies light, sight, knowledge, and some degree of goodness, so nature is not completely evil when giving out a punishment (beating, pasting).  Also, a sun shower is something that does not usually happen, for rain is often coupled with darkness, black clouds, thunder and lightning.  Thus, even when punishing, the nature of “November” leans on the side of gentleness and hope.
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        The seventh line, “We heard ‘ ’Tis over’ roaring[,]” continues threads of Mammon and contradiction already found in the poem.  The important phrase to recall is “We saw,” from line one.  Though the nameless “we” smoothly returns from line one, “heard” both clashes and merges with “saw.”  The two words merge because they are senses, and they emphasize the reliance on the sensual world of Mammon.  However, they are two different senses, so the words cause a change of gears as the poem’s reader continues.

        The phrase “ ’Tis over’ roaring” adds yet another paradox, because “ ’Tis over” sounds like a dainty, off-hand, arm-chair English remark.  “[R]oaring,” however, implies ferocity and nature.  The “heard” of earlier should resurface to the careful reader, though, because the sound of “heard” is actually that of “herd,” as in a herd of a wild animals.  Though lions usually roar, a herd of angry elephants could surely make a comparable sound when roused to anger.  Thus, the animalism of “roaring” blatantly clashes with its preceding phrase, “ ’Tis over.’”

        Like line seven, line eight is its own sentence, and this act by Frost elevates the significance of both lines.  The eighth reads, “A year of leaves was wasted.”  At this point, Frost slyly slips science into his poetry with the time-space continuum.  He gives an amount of time (a year) a physical space, or value (an amount of leaves).  While this reference of science is not as obvious as those found in other AWT poems, such as “A Loose Mountain (Telescopic),” “It Is Almost the Year Two Thousand,” or “A Question,” it does touch base with the scientific world.

        Aside from the science of “[a] year,” this word choice sounds more hopeful than “all the leaves.”  In this sense, a year implies a season that is capable of renewal, like “migratory” of line two.  Unlike a physical amount (“all”), an amount of time (“year”) always follows with more time.  Time never starts and stops; it will continue until the “end of time,” and only God knows when that will happen (“[Y]ou know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).).  Thus, despite the punishing power of nature in “November,” hope exists for the future.

        In a final note on line eight, the narrator introduces the word “wasted.”  The student of Frost will immediately see “waste” and think back to the countless references in his other poems, in which waste is an essential part of life.  In “November,” the glory of the leaves (their changing color, which looks pleasing for Mammon-infested humans) and the leaves (Mammon accumulation) are beaten into “paste” (“dust”) by nature (“rain”).  Not all is lost, though, because while nature brings life and death, it also brings seasons, renewal, and growth (“a time for everything”).  Thus, despite human shortcomings, “we” also find hope and a future.

        The ninth line, “Oh, we make a boast of storing,” pops out of left field.  Instead of musing about leaves and nature, the narrator seems to changes the subject.  Once again, the sound of a word offers several potential interpretations.  “Oh” could be read in a stern, tired, or rueful voice, among others.  The stern voice would carry anger and a finger-wagging parent approach.  Tiredness would imply exasperation and, “I give up.”  Finally, a rueful slant would bring a hearty, sarcastic, laugh-filled wisdom made by scars.  Whatever the case, “Oh” perches at the start of line nine guarding all sorts of possibilities.

        The word “we” immediately follows, bringing back that nameless, comfortable mass of companionship found in lines one and seven.  However, “make a boast of storing” brings only vile connotations to the nameless “we.”  First off, “we make” implies a human creation process like Frankenstein, in which “we” play God.  As if that is not bad enough, “we” make a “boast,” which is a pride-filled hollow in their lives.  Finally, the boast is made because of storing, in which Mammon connotations abound.  Storing, like all other acts of physical worship, leads humans away from God and to a hollow life.

        One should pause after reading line nine and wonder why Frost did not leave a space between eight and nine.  A lack of space should mean that there is no need to distance the two lines; they share enough similarities to remain together.  Thus, words and thoughts of nine must relate back to something else.  The “we make” traces back to “[w]e saw” and “[w]e heard” (1, 7) but more importantly, the “storing” relates back to the “leaves” of earlier leaves.  Just as leaves represent our fleeting physical things of this world, our storing is also fleeting.  Leaves may change colors and rise to glory, but they then “fall” and die.  Likewise, “storing” up anything of this world is a fruitless endeavor that only bows us down to wealth and causes us to “fall” from God’s will.

        The tenth line, “Of saving and of keeping,” adds to the role of Mammon found in earlier lines.  Naturally, “saving” relates to “keeping” relates to “storing,” but in addition to actually doing these things, “we” also have the gall to “boast” about them all.  At this point in “November,” it should be apparent that the narrator glowers down at mankind with shame.

        In line eleven, readers find out that one thing “we” “ignore” in order to “boast” of “storing, saving,” and “keeping” is the “waste of moments sleeping.”  The nameless “we” thus becomes useless at night, in the dark, without any God-given light, and so they essentially stop functioning and sleep.  The use of the word “moments” makes the usual amount of time that humans sleep (hours) seem excessive.  This excess relates to the waste of the sleep, which we ignore.  If the nameless “we” did not ignore the waste and excess of their lives, they would not make their boasts.  Without these acts of pride (both ignoring and boasting), “we” would become more humble and God-like, accepting waste as “natural” and cyclic.

        The use of “moments” also greatly contrasts with earlier amounts of time in the poem, namely “one wild day” and “[a] year” (6, 8).  This contrast polarizes the existence of humans, which live minute, moment-filled lives that “we” “ignore,” against nature, which ravages and punishes for much larger amounts of time.

        Line thirteen “almost” mirrors line twelve: “The waste of pleasure weeping.”  Though weeping is usually done in sorrow, it can be done in joy, in excessive pleasure or happiness.  The excess, or waste, serves as the second thing that “we” ignore in order to boast.  Taken separately, both “pleasure” and “weeping” represent a different type of waste: pleasure being excessive human indulgence, weeping being excessive human sorrow.  The “leaves” (Mammon accumulation) of the nameless “we” become “wasted” due to excessive human emotion.

        Line fourteen, “By denying and ignoring,” “almost” mirrors line eleven.  However, we both deny and ignore the “waste of nations warring” (15).  The use of “deny” may seem excessive, since “ignore” was already used in line eleven.  However, since the magnitude of “waste” increases from “sleeping and weeping” to “nations warring,” the amount of explaining words also increases.  The plight of nations becomes harder to swallow by individuals, and so “we” must both deny and ignore the truth.
After carefully dissecting “November,” even the most patient of Frost’s readers might be tempted to sigh and wonder, “What does it all mean?”  With a poem so short and packed, meaning simply oozes in every imaginable direction.  The more one closes a hand onto one meaning, the more another meaning will slip through the fingers.  Thus, it is essential to keep many things in mind at the same time.  For starters, hope does exist for the nameless “we.”  Despite the many references to Mammon, the references to waste and the punishing force of nature carry along themes of “dust to dust,” seasons, life through death, and renewal.  The large number of gerunds also implies that certain actions have not been finished yet, and thus they can be stopped.  Conversely, if their ceaseless “nature” means that they cannot be stopped, then this timeless quality promises for a future potentially filled with change.  Also, the “one wild day of rain” brings a washing, cleansing effect on God’s part that will be used to make the world a better place.  Taken together, these thoughts provide an impressive cornucopia of meaning in the short, normal-looking "November."



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Martin Lewis-Gonzalez
Robert Frost and the Rebellious Cave Men of A Witness Tree

        In a couple of poems in A Witness Tree Robert Frost takes the time to question mankind’s development of fire.  This situation, for Frost, is a clear example of science overstepping its bounds and sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong.  Through “A Loose Mountain” and “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus” Frost criticizes man’s desire to meddle with the natural order and illuminate the nighttime.  It is a travesty for him that man should want to escape the cyclic darkness that would otherwise cover them for twelve hours out of every twenty-four.  This unnatural meddling, which seems to some as the source for progress, simply creates, for Frost, a variety of repercussions.

        In “A Loose Mountain,” Frost primarily uses the poem to describe the precarious perch that earth maintains in the universe.  As part of this notion, he uses the precariousness of the situation to criticize man's tampering in an otherwise natural, and functional, system.  For him the midnight meteor shower is a symbolic castigation for mankind’s Promethean theft of fire:

                    It is but fiery puffs of dust and pebbles,
                    No doubt directed at our heads as rebels
                    In having taken artificial light
                    Against the ancient sovereignty of night.

In his typical fashion, however, Frost does not state this as fact, but merely suggests it by starting with the words “no doubt.”  Assuming in this case that what he says is what he means, Frost then goes on to state that this harmless lashing from the universe is a hint of a potentially much more lethal retribution.  For Frost the pyrotechnic shower of cosmic dust hides something behind it, a cosmic "hint" of nature's disapproval of man's advances.  He goes on to suggest that this massive flying “mountain” of matter is held in check from smashing into us by a natural balance.  Too much tampering, and this balance may shift, thus causing us to “absorb” its terminal momentum:  "But from irresolution in his back/About when best to have us in our orbit,/So we don’t simply take it and absorb it." Thus Frost defines man’s development of fire as the first of a sequence of scientific steps that have been getting them in more and more trouble.  The initial theft of fire only caused a harmless shower of pebbles, but too much more destabilizing of the system and we may catch a much bigger rock.

        Frost’s poem, “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus,” provides another perspective on the same issue.  Here, Frost introduces a dialogue over the presence of an artificial star that hangs over the roof of a farmer’s house.  In this poem, Frost uses sarcasm as a means of criticizing the latest in “Jersey-ite” progress.  A light that is meant to ban the night, and help people escape from “beds which have no right side to get out of,” for Frost is an outrage. Its presence is not a symbol of advancement, but one of regression. Rather than accepting the benefits of the natural cycle, the Thomas Edisons of the world try to change it, and in doing so make things worse.

        As part of his criticism Frost sets up a comparison between the common sense farmer and the zealous town people (to include scientists).  Perhaps because the country man is just a farmer, Frost grants him a greater level of common sense over the town folk.  In town they are too busy wondering how to develop things to stop and question if they should.  By the end of the conversation, the farmer concludes sarcastically:

                    No need for us to rack our common heads
                    About it though.  We haven’t got the mind.
                    It best be left to great men of his kind
                    Who have no other object than our good.

But that’s exactly what Frost doesn’t want to happen.  His whole point is that scientists aren’t stopping to ask the big questions and that someone needs to.  The process of progress, that started with the rubbing of sticks together to create fire, was initially a beneficial endeavor to accomplish such things as scaring away the Pterodix.  By 1926, however, the process has gone awry without any checks to moderate it:

                    There’s a lot yet that isn’t understood.
                    Ain’t it a caution to us not to fix
                    No limits to what rose in rubbing sticks.
                    On fire to scare away the pterodix
                    When man first lived in caves along the creeks?

                    Marvelous world in nineteen twenty-six.

Thus, Frost uses his criticism in the two poems as a means of denouncing the modern faith in science.  One of the targets in his poems is the starting points of science, the development of fire.  He does not side, in these poems, with the thieving Prometheus but rather with the God’s who withheld fire from man in the first place.  Through this, Frost shows how he is distinctly against the contemporary trend of scientific development and its potentially destructive nature.  He favors a more conservative, common sense, approach to the world, one that is based in reason rather than an irrational fervor for “progress.”  For Frost, following the rush of science holds great possible dangers, such as cosmic collision or nuclear disaster, that could otherwise be avoided.  In his view the caveman may have been better off leaving the rubbing sticks alone.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Brian Higgins
A Steeple on the House

         “A Steeple on the House,” is one of the most curious poems in Frost’s Steeple Bush volume.   It is rather short in comparison to the more complex poems, and the last line seems more confusing than clarifying.  However, the title of the poem contains part of the title for the volume.  Scholars familiar with Frost know that he rarely does anything without intention or design, and this includes inserting a poem in a volume.  These two observations would suggest that this poem is here for a reason, which leads to the question: what is Frost doing in this poem, and how does it relate to the title or at least the title object, the steeple bush?

        In order to grasp any understanding of the poem, we must first look at the first three lines of the poem, which set up the focus of comparison:

                            What if it should turn out eternity
                            Was but the steeple on our house of life
                            That made our house of life a house of worship?

The first thing we notice is that Frost does something very familiar: ask a question (and if we know Frost at all, we will assume he will leave the question unanswered).  Then Frost does something else fairly typical, which is distance himself from the poem, making it seem nonrealistic by inserting the word "if."  This makes the whole question seem like a game of pondering or wondering for the sake of wondering.  Nevertheless, we must take the question seriously regardless of Frost’s game playing, or better yet, let us play the game.  Within the question, Frost sets up a textbook analogy. (This seems fairly appropriate, because Frost is a teacher and he is setting out his poetry to teach.)  A steeple is to a church as eternity is to the house of life.  This analogy immediately sets us to questioning how eternity, an abstract idea is similar to a steeple.  This leads to a problem, which is that eternity is not a tangible object.  It is something that we imagine.  Just by claiming there is an eternity, the narrator implies that there is some sort of afterlife or that the cycle of earth will go on forever.  But wait: is this Frost’s point?  Perhaps Frost is saying that man’s sense of eternity is what drives him to do something.  Frost never claims eternity to be a true idea; he only claims that man senses it.  If this is the case, then perhaps the steeple represents the same idea.  The steeple sits on top of a regular building, which makes the building a church.  Is it man’s idea of the holiness of a church, or is it really holy?

        The next three lines of the poem indicate some of the ideas about waste presented in Steeple Bush:

                            We do not go up there to sleep at night.
                            We do not go up there to live by day.
                            Nor need we ever go up there to live.

If we do not go up there to sleep at night, then there must be some use for the steeple in the daytime.  However, in the next line, Frost clearly claims we don’t go into the steeple in the day either, but if we don’t go up in the day or the night, then there must be some utility for the steeple in our life.  Yet, in the next line, Frost makes the bold claim that we don’t ever need to go to the steeple to live, but what is the steeple’s utility then?  Frost would answer that there is no utility.  Just because something cannot be used for something practical does not mean that it has no worth.  In fact, some of the most wasteful things in life such as art or fighting are in fact more significant and essential to life than the things with measurable value.  The steeple in this poem seems to be one of those items, but if the steeple is so valuable, what is its significance?  The answer to this line may be found in the last two lines of the poem: “A spire and a belfry coming on the roof means that a soul is coming on flesh.”  In this line, Frost implies that the steeple’s value lies in its essence as a symbol.  The soul coming to flesh seems to imply man’s coming to terms with himself.  The steeple is an object we place on the roof to symbolize God.  We place holiness on this church in the same way the narrator places a holiness on the broken glass he stole from the playing children and has hidden in “Directive.”  Maybe it really has some magical value, but most likely not.  Regardless, by mentally placing the value in the object, we cause the object to symbolize some sort of hope.

        In relation to the title of Steeple Bush, this idea of the steeple and eternity is quite significant in many ways.  First, just as the steeple bush represents the cycle of nature, the beauty of waste, and a hope for humanity, the steeple and eternity come to represent a sense of hope as well.  By believing in eternity, man is driven to search and take advantage of his time on earth.  This effort alone represents his acknowledgement of nature’s cycle.  Moreover, this seems to answer a question about what we know.  In “Too Anxious for Rivers,” the narrator claims that Lucretius did not need to travel into space to find the beginning of the world, because he was only searching for something he already innately knew: “What set us on fire and what set us revolving/Lucretius the Epicurean might tell us /‘Twas something we already knew to begin with.”  In Steeple Bush, Frost makes claims that nature exists in cycles and there are only middles.  We cannot find the beginnings and endings to the world, because we exist in the middle, and cannot comprehend or find solid answers to such questions.  However, there is some benefit that can come from the search.  Instead, Frost suggests if we look for signs right in front of us, such as the shooting stars in “An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box,” we can find evidence of God and hope.  The steeple comes to represent eternity, which is a sign of hope just like the steeple bush.  Eternity is one of those ideas we can’t prove to be true, but we just sense innately.  The steeple is the same idea, because although it really has no purpose, it symbolizes a church and man’s hope in God and an afterlife, and man’s search for truth, which can never be found but can be fulfilling.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Brian Higgins
Why Steeple Bush?

        Robert Frost published the volume of poetry entitled Steeple Bush in 1947, around the age of seventy-three, making it one of the last few volumes he ever published.  The critical reception of this volume at the time was hardly favorable. This may possibly be attributed to its complexity and difficulty in thematic content.  While the volume consists of a wide array of different poetic styles and forms, including lyric poems, rhyming poems, sonnets, and dramatic poems, many of them demonstrate patterns of metaphor and strategy Frost used in previously published volumes.  However, Frost seems to be doing something different in Steeple Bush, distinguishing the volume as a unique, individual entity.  Thus, when a four-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet publishes such a work, critics and students should not be too quick to dismiss the volume’s genius. Instead, one should make a conscious and scholarly effort to analyze and discover just what Frost might be doing in such a work.

        There are numerous ways to approach Frost’s intricate web of metaphor spun in Steeple Bush, although it is doubtful any of them should be linear.  One method that Frost suggests in the poem “Directive,” the fourth poem in the volume, is to get lost enough to find yourself.  However, one should not attempt to lose himself in Frost’s poetry without some sort of landmark or guide.  In the previously published A Witness Tree, the witness tree serves as the title.  However, it also appears within the poetry as a literal marker (for land).  More importantly, the witness tree acts as a figurative or metaphorical marker to serve as a landmark to help us engage and keep us from getting too lost within the poetry.  In the same manner, the title of this volume, Steeple Bush, may also serve as a literal and metaphoric marker from which to base our analysis and also keep us on our way as we attempt to get lost.

        If we begin with the title, The Steeple Bush--and as we’ll discover later, within the ideology of the poetry, we are only beginning in the middle--we are faced with an immediate question.  In “Something for Hope,” the second poem in the volume, the narrator describes the literal steeple bush as a weed that has no utility.  In fact the steeple bush seems to be a nuisance because it takes up space and crowds out the edible grass.

                        At the present rate it must come to pass
                        And that right soon that the meadow sweet
                        And steeple bush not good to eat
                        Will have crowded out the edible grass.

                        Then all there is to do is wait
                        For the maple birch and spruce to push
                        Through meadow sweet and steeple bush
                        And crowd them out at a similar rate.
                                                       (Frost 339)

Thus, if the steeple bush is an ugly weed that has no utility and is taking up space, the mystery and question becomes: why would Frost so boldly name his volume of poetry after so insignificant a plant?  The answer to this question is as complex as the volume itself, and if we have learned anything from Frost’s previous volumes, it seems unlikely the question has one answer or that the answer is entirely clear.   Moreover, it is doubtful the answer can be found through linear analysis.  However, this question or problem with the title may serve as the key for at least partially unraveling the riddle of this intriguing volume of poetry, Steeple Bush.

The Beauty Found In Waste

 The first and most obvious association we can make with the steeple bush is Frost’s notion of beauty that can be found in waste.  The reason that we can so quickly resort to this idea is that Frost has presented this idea in numerous other poems.  We have to look no further than the early poem, “The Wood Pile,” to see how Frost plays with the idea that there is some form of beauty in waste (and beauty in form).  In “The Wood Pile,” as the narrator is walking through a frozen swamp-land, he comes across an abandoned wood-pile.  No doubt, the person who built the pile put in a lot of work to make it, and the narrator wonders how someone could put so much work into something and then leave it unused:

                                           …I thought that only
                            Someone who lived in turning fresh tasks
                            He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
                            And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
                            To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
                            With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
                                                                           (Frost 101)

Clearly, this wood pile is a metaphor for waste.  Someone has built the wood pile for fire-making purposes but left it unused to waste away.  However, Frost proposes that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  He finds some sort of beauty in a wasted thing.  First, there is something to be said for the satisfaction that comes from doing work.  The product of work is not nearly significant as this satisfaction.  The person who built the wood pile did so with a purpose, but it was the task itself that was more important.  There is something rewarding in the work.  Thus, when it was complete, this person who “lived in turning to fresh tasks,” left to perform new tasks and forgot all about the product of his work.  Second, Frost uses this metaphor of waste to represent art, and the beauty of art, which would seem to have no utility.  The wood pile, while not physically burning to create heat, still somehow manages to warm the frozen swamp with its “smokeless burning of decay.”  Thus, just because an artist puts work into his art, and art may not be useful, does not mean that it is not important.  There are aspects significant to humanity other than mere utility.  Art can be sublime, pleasing, and necessary to the soul in ways a factory producing clothes cannot.

        In terms of the steeple bush, this relationship with waste seems immediately obvious.  While the steeple bush may not be beautiful or useful as spruce or the maple is for lumber, perhaps there may be some beauty in its existence, just as the aesthetic beauty of the birch, in “A Young Birch,” is more important than the birch’s utility.  In fact, in that first poem of the volume, the narrator reveals the immense beauty of the birch as it grows from being small into standing as a beautiful adult tree: “The only native tree that dares to lean,”/ “Relying on its beauty, to the air.”  Frost takes this idea of beauty and directly matches it against the tree’s potential utility.  When compared to the utility of the tools the birch might have made, the birch’s beauty is more significant:

                            At first to be no bigger than a cane,
                            And then no bigger than a fishing pole,
                            But now at last so obvious a bole
                            The most efficient help you ever hired
                            Would know that it was there to be admired.
                                                                            (Frost 339)

While the birch might have been used as a fishing pole or a cane, one would be foolish to cut it down, because its beauty is much more important.  This concept brings us to question why beauty is so important, because in “Something for Hope,” the narrator values the birch for its lumber to contrast the steeple bush’s lack of utility:

                            Then cut down the trees when lumber grown,
                            And there’s your pristine earth all freed
                            From lovely blooming but wasteful weed
                            And ready again for the grass to own.
                                                                    (Frost 339)

How is it that Frost finds beauty in the steeple bush, and why is the beauty of the young birch in the first poem so important?  The answer seems to lie in Frost’s notion of the cyclic patterns of nature, and the function of waste, an apparently unnecessary thing, within these cyclic patterns of nature.

The Cyclic Pattern of Nature

        The concept that nature exists in cycles is an important idea that Frost portrays in other volumes of poetry.  He sees consistent signs in nature that remind him of nature’s cycle, the most apparent being the changing seasons.  Often for Frost these signs, instead of being glimmers of hope, can represent fear and oppression.  Frost clearly presents this idea in his poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” where he focuses on the somewhat depressing side of autumn.  In the fall, he can see the beauty of nature in the colors of the leaves.  However, this also brings a sense of sorrow because he knows it will not stay, and the cycle of the seasons will continue causing the color to disappear, being replaced by winter:

                            Nature’s first green is gold,
                            Her hardest hue to hold.
                            Her early leaf’s a flower;
                            But only so an hour.
                            Then the leaf subsides to leaf.
                            So Eden sank to grief,
                            So dawn goes down to day.
                            Nothing gold can stay.
                                                  (Frost 206)

        While Frost’s notion of nature’s cycle seems pessimistic and fearful in his early volumes of poetry, his notion seems to take a more hopeful turn in the first two poems of Steeple Bush.  In the beginning of “A Young Birch,” the birch is very young, and just beginning to lose its outer bark:  “The birch begins to crack its outer sheath”/ “Of baby green and show the white beneath,”/ “As whosoever likes the young and slight”/ “May well have noticed” (Frost 339).  Here, the purity of the white and the inner beauty begins to shed its dark shell.  The process continues until all the bark is gone:

                              …Soon entirely white
                            To double day and cut in half the dark
                            It will stand forth, entirely white in bark,
                            And nothing but the top a leafy green-
                            The only native tree that dares to lean,
                            Relying on its beauty, to the air.
                                                           (Frost 339)

Once this cycle of growing is complete, the narrator asserts that it would be foolish to cut the tree down.  But why is this beauty so much more important than the tree’s potential utility for work?  Could it be because it is a symbol of hope?

        The narrator of “Something for Hope” more clearly expresses nature’s cycle than the narrator of “A Young Birch.”  As previously mentioned, he initially presents the bush as a weed, a plant that is ugly, worthless, and somehow destructive, because it crowds out the useful grass:

                        At the present rate it must come to pass
                        And that right soon that the meadow sweet
                        And the steeple bush not good to eat
                        Will have crowded out the grass.
                                                       (Frost 339)

He continues the cyclic pattern as he refers to having to wait on the maple, birch, and spruce trees to grow and crowd out the steeple bush in the same way that the steeple bush crowds out the grass.  Once this process occurs, the birches can be cut down and used for lumber in a productive way:

                        Then cut down the trees when the lumber grown,
                        And there’s your pristine earth all freed
                        From lovely blooming but wasteful weed
                        And ready again for the grass to own.
                                                                (Frost 340)

Once again, Frost refers to the weed as being wasteful and ugly, but there is a tone of sarcasm in his lyric.  Nevertheless, there is hope, for the cycle will continue, just as it always does.  In the next stanza, however, Frost takes a shot at the government for interfering in nature’s cycle.

                        A cycle we’ll say of a hundred years.
                        Thus foresight does it and laissez faire,
                        A virtue in which we all may share
                        Unless a government interferes.
                                                           (Frost 340)

In the last stanza Frost brings together the idea of the cycle of nature and the beauty in the seemingly wasteful steeple bush:

                        Patience and looking away ahead,
                        And leaving some things to take their course.
                        Hope may not nourish a cow or a horse,
                        But spes alit agricolam ‘tis said.
                                                          (Frost 340)

The cycle of the birches and the steeple bush never ends.  It has been going on as long as man has observed it.  Moreover, even though the steeple bush seems wasteful, Frost finds some innate beauty in the fact that it represents the cycle.  When the steeple bush is at its full growth, the farmer knows the trees will soon begin their reign.  Thus, the steeple bush brings hope, just as winter brings hope for fall to come.  Similarly, the birch in “A Young Birch,” should not be cut down.  Its beauty represents the beauty of nature’s cycle, and man should not interfere in that cycle or lose sight of its importance.  This is a much more blatantly optimistic perception of nature’s cycle than Frost presents in earlier poems such as “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  While the repetition of the title, nothing gold can stay, at the end of the poem suggests some hope, the poem seems overwhelmingly pessimistic.  Where the narrator in “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is in a state of autumn where winter is about to come, the narrators in Steeple Bush write as if they were in winter, confidently waiting for summer.

        This emphasis on beauty in hope is one aspect that makes this volume of poetry unique.  Where in earlier poems like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “The Wood-Pile,” Frost presents both ideas, the beauty of waste and the cycle of nature, Frost does not address the two concepts in the same poem, because Frost focuses on the fear in the cycle.  However, in this later volume of poems, Frost emphasizes the beauty of the cycle instead of the fearful side.  In this way, he is able to bring these two ideas, the beauty of waste and the cycle of nature together in a sort of synthesis.  This is another way that the title, Steeple Bush, becomes quite appropriate for the volume.  However, this leads us to another important question, which is why would Frost change his view on the subject?  Why would he try to join these two seemingly different ideas represented by the steeple bush?  It seems that Frost has intentionally fused these two ideas into the symbol of the steeple bush as a representation of hope.  He holds this hope up as an ideal that can be destroyed by two other ideas, science and imagination.  In order to grasp this idea, we must first begin with Frost’s focus on "middles."

Only Middles

        Frost’s idea about “middles” is really a contrast to the common attempts to search for beginnings and endings.  As previously stated, Frost holds fast to the idea that nature exists in a cycle.  This being the case, there can be no beginning or ending to the cycle, for in a circle there is no starting point or ending.  Searching for origins and endings in such a system is futile.  Frost has offered this idea in previous poetry, such as in the poem “In the Home Stretch.”  Here a couple has moved into a new house.  They begin to argue over who first brought up the idea to move.  The wife claims the husband is trying to search for things that can’t be known.  The husband is defensive in his argument:  “I don’t want to find out what can’t be known.  But who first said the word to come?”  The wife responds with:

                                                     …My dear
                            It’s who first thought the thought.  You’re searching, Joe,
                            For things that don’t exist; I mean beginnings.
                            Ends and beginnings--there are no such things.
                            There are only middles.”
                                              (Frost 113)

Frost continues this idea in Steeple Bush, and this idea becomes a direct confrontation with science, because looking for beginnings and endings is a scientific way of approaching the world’s existence.  In “The Middleness if the Road,” Frost creates a metaphor of a car driving down a road.  The road is rising on a hill, and as the narrator looks up the road, it appears to disappear into the sky:  “The road at the top of the rise”/ “Seems to come to an end”/ “And takes off into the skies” (Frost 352).  Similarly, as the narrator looks down the road where it bends, it seems to disappear into the trees:  “So at the distant bend”/ “It seems to go into a wood,”/ “The place of standing still”/ “As long the trees have stood” (Frost 352).  As the metaphor goes, it seems to the narrator that the road has an ending.  However, the rest of the poem asserts that this is only an illusion, and the rise and bend in the road only lead to more road.  The car he is driving is only somewhere in the middle of the road.  Moreover, it is not a middle in the sense of the exact center; it is only a place between near and far:  “The mineral drops that explode to drive my ton of car are limited to the road.  They deal with near and far.”  Then the narrator goes on to suggest that his driving down the road in his car is an insignificant middle in comparison to the larger middles represented by the boundaries set up by the ground and the sky:

                                They deal with near and far,

                                But have nothing to do
                                With the absolute flight and rest
                                The universal blue
                                And local green suggest.
                                                       (Frost 352)

Here it seems Frost is playing with this idea of middles and science’s approach of trying to find beginnings and endings.  Even though it may seem there are beginnings and endings, in actuality there are no beginnings and endings to the universe; there are only middles.  The absolute flight and rest of the sky and the land expresses a continual cycle of middles, not ends, as the sky and the land both shape a sphere, or circle, not the flat earth of Columbus’s day.  This perpetual cycle of the earth and nature offers no room for beginnings and endings, only middles.  Thus, in this case, science is wrong, but so is imagination, because what the narrator imagined to be true, an ending to the road, was not the case.

        The contrast or tension between science and imagination becomes an even more important focus of  the entire volume, which is our next focus.  First, though, we must first address the important idea of middles and how it connects to this tension between science and imagination, a tension that, in fact, relates back to the title of the poem.  We’ve already seen how Frost has associated a symbol of hope in the image of the steeple bush.  The steeple bush represents the cycle of nature and the beauty of waste, which gives us hope.  Now it seems Frost is claiming that the steeple bush, by representing these ideals, also symbolizes a middle.  These signs of nature are signs of a cycle, and thus a sign that there are no origins or beginnings.  They must be signs of a middle.  In “The Middleness of the Road,” we’ve glimpsed the way in which Frost relates this middle to the scientific thought, as well as to imagination. However, let us take a look at how he further develops this idea in other poems.

Scientific Thought Versus Imagination

        Frost puts his sensation of the tension between science and imagination and its conflict with the idea of middles into perspective in his poem “Too Anxious for Rivers.”  In this poem, the narrator sets the scene in a valley.  He sees a river, and he wonders where the river ends:

                            Look down the long valley and there stands a mountain
                            That someone has said is the end of the world.
                            Then what of this river that haven arisen
                            Must find where to pour itself into and empty?
                                                                                  (Frost 342)

Here, Frost shows the scientific idea of searching for endings.  He claims that someone has said the mountain is the end of the world, which is a ridiculous idea.  However, scientists make such claims all the time.  Moreover, he is searching for the river’s end.  Yet, the river is a cycle, so it is pointless to search for such an end.  Soon, the narrator senses this, and claims he is guilty of imagining the river has an end:

                            Oh, I have been often too anxious for rivers
                            To leave it to them to get out of their valleys.
                            The truth is the river flows into the canyon
                            Of Ceasing to Question What Doesn’t Concern Us,
                            As sooner or later we have to cease somewhere.
                            No place to get lost like too far in the distance.
                                                                                     (Frost 342)

In this part of the poem, it is the narrator’s imagination that wishes for the river to come to some sort of an end.  However, the end to the river is not really possible to comprehend, so the narrator realizes that he is trying to question something that doesn’t have an answer.  Moreover, he senses that he is in the middle of near and far, and this river exists in both, in the middle.

        In the next piece of the poem, Frost creates an analogy for the existence of the world:

                            The world as we know is an elephant’s howdah;
                            The elephant stands on the back of a turtle;
                            The turtle in turn on a rock in the ocean.
                                                                     (Frost 343)

This Hindu creation story seems like a very unstable state for the world to exist in. Moreover, it does not make a lot of sense.  However, the narrator asserts that science’s claims for the existence of the world is hardly any better:

                            And how much longer a story has science
                            Before she must put out the light on the children
                            And tell them the rest of the story is dreaming?
                            ‘You children may dream it and tell it tomorrow.’
                            Time was we were molten, time was we were vapor.
                                                                                             (Frost 343)

Here the narrator asserts that science is a ridiculous search for a beginning, specifically the Big Bang Theory.  He claims it would be better to let little children imagine a story for creation.  However, the story they imagine seems wrong too, for any story attempting to find a beginning will be wrong, because as we’ve shown, the world is a middle in a large cycle.

        In the final piece of the poem, Frost asserts that science and imagination’s search for origins and endings is not all bad:

                            What set us on fire and what set us revolving
                            Lucretius the Epicurean might tell us
                            ‘Twas something we knew all about to begin with
                            And needn’t have fared into space like his master
                            To find ‘twas the effort, the essay of love.
                                                                         (Frost 343)

Both are different and opposed, and both are searching for something they can’t find, or in a way, something they have known all along.  However, there is something rewarding in making the journey, or going on the process of searching.  However, the important thing to realize is not to force beginnings and endings (i.e. answers) that are not there or don’t concern you.  As the “essay of love” suggests, instead of finding the beginning or ending to the story of life, as science strives and claims to do, humans are better off focusing on emotions and feelings, the "essay" of love.  Love is one aspect of human existence that we can feel and know.  It is neither beginning nor end, but a great middle that makes life interesting and the journey of searching worth making, thus the difference between an essay and a story.

        This concept of the tension between scientific and imaginative methodology in searching and its opposition to Frost’s idea of middles becomes the major theme in Steeple Bush, and it takes on many different forms.  In  “Two Leading Lights” Frost places this struggle into the cosmic form of the relationship between the sun and the moon: “I never happened to contrast/The two in the celestial cast/Whose prominence has been so vast” (Frost 354). The metaphor of the sun and the moon takes on interesting forms as the poem continues, because the sun comes to represent masculine thought; Frost even refers to the sun as He:

                                The Sun is satisfied with days.
                                He never has in any phase
                                That I have heard of shone at night.
                                And yet he is a power of light
                                And could in one burst overwhelm
                                And dayify the darkest realm of eminent domain.
                                                                                         (Frost 354)

In this passage, the sun knows his place.  He shows his face only in the daytime.  This is an interesting metaphor because the sun makes the daytime.  If there were no sun, there would be no day.  Yet the sun knows not to come out at night in the darkness, even though he could “dayify” (a Frostian play on them "deity") the darkness if he wished.  In this way, the sun also seems to take on a God-like form.  He can bring light to any darkness, just as God brought light to the world.  In contrast, the narrator portrays the moon as feminine.  She is whimsical and does not know her place:

                            The Moon for all her light and grace
                            Has never learned to know her place.
                            The notedest astronomers
                            Have set the dark aside for hers.
                            But there are many nights though clear
                            She doesn’t bother to appear.
                                                                (Frost 354)

Here, the moon, while cosmic and a light bringer, does not always do her job.  Of course, the job she is supposed to fulfill has been set forth by astronomers and scientists; and the narrator feels she should follow the rules and the example of the sun.  Not only does she sometimes refuse to come out at night, but in the next lines of the poem, she even decides to come out in the daytime:

                                Some lunatic or lunar whim
                                Will bring her out diminished dim
                                To set herself beside the Sun
                                As Sheba came to Solomon.
                                                              (Frost 354)

In this passage, the moon is truly feminine as she comes out to visit the sun on a whim.  By using the word lunatic, the narrator even goes so far as to suggest she is crazy.  In the last part of the poem, the narrator suggests that she is attracted by the sun’s wishing ability to change the seasons, and thus on some divine whim, she comes out to visit:

                                Some rumor of his wishing ring
                                That changes winter into spring
                                Has brought her merely visiting,
                                An irresponsible divinity
                                Presuming on her femininity.
                                                          (Frost 354)

Once again Frost brings us back to the idea of cycles and waste.  The masculine Sun, steady and sure, brings about winter and summer, the cycle of nature.  The feminine Moon defies the cycle’s schedule and comes out when she pleases.  When she does come out in the daytime, her light is not needed, and thus is a form of waste.  And yet this does not bother her.  Moreover, there is some sort of beauty in her visiting side by side with the sun.  Once again, Frost shows beauty in his two ideas.  There is beauty in the power of the sun and his bringing about the cycle of nature.  In contrast, there is beauty in the wasteful actions of the moon.  In addition, Frost sets up the tension between science and imagination.  Science in the form of astronomers has set out rules for the moon, who acts on whims or imagination.  The only steady, the sun is not part of the tension.

As previously mentioned, this tension between science and imagination becomes the major theme of Steeple Bush. Consequently, this idea emerges in almost every poem.  Some of the most obvious are “Skeptic,” “Why Wait for Science,” “Choose Something Like a Star,” and “From Plane to Plane.”  If desired, we could go through each poem and point out the same tensions.  Although the metaphor and styles are different, the message seems the same.  Therefore, we will accept these poems as asserting similar ideas and move on to how all these ideas lead back to our initial question of why Frost chose the steeple bush for the title.  So far, what we’ve determined is that Frost has merged the cycle of nature and the beauty of waste into the idea of hope in the form of the steeple bush.  This idea of hope can also be renamed as a symbol of a middle.  Additionally, Frost has set up a tension between science and imagination, which are beautiful in their process of searching but directly opposed to this middle in their belief in beginnings and endings.  But how does this tension relate to the steeple bush?  Our next step in answering this question is an important piece of this puzzle, and that is the concept of signs.

Signs

        Similar to the way science and imagination search for beginnings and endings, most religions seek to prove a beginning, or that there is a God who created earth and life.  Frost asserts that this is another process of asking a question that cannot really be answered, because as humans, we cannot comprehend the exact form in which God might exist.  However, within this volume, Frost suggests that there are signs of his existence that can be found right in front of us if we just recognized them as such.  The best example can be found in “An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box.”  In this poem, the narrator is a lonely traveler who passes through a pasture and stays there for the night.  This traveler is speaking to the unknown owner of the pasture; his form is a letter he leaves in the owner’s mailbox.  In the letter, the traveler tells the story of his overnight stay in the pasture, where he fell asleep under a juniper, but was awoken by a rock he was sleeping upon.  The tramp awoke to see a falling star:

                                Or so much as uncross my feet,
                                Lest having wasted precious heat
                                I never should again be warmed,
                                The largest firedrop ever formed
                                From two stars’ having coalesced
                                Went streaking molten down the west.”
                                                                           (Frost 343)

At this point, the narrator realized that what he had seen was a sign of heaven, and then all of a sudden, everything became clear in his head.  He realized that man has searched for God in vain.  Man cannot really understand God, but he can see the signs of his existence:

                            And then your tramp astrologer
                            From seeing this undoubted stir
                            In Heaven’s firm-set firmament,
                            Himself had the equivalent,
                            Only within.  Inside the brain
                            Two memories that long had lain,
                            Now quivered toward each other, lipped
                            Together, and together slipped;
                            And for a moment all was plain
                            That men have thought about in vain.
                                                                   (Frost 344)

Then the narrator vocalizes the possibility that the owner might have scene the same falling star, because he was in the same location and had the same chance the tramp had to see such a sign.  The narrator claims that the reason he wrote the letter lies in his hope that the owner may have seen this same sign.  However, he asserts that even if the owner did not see the star, he must have seen a similar sign at some time during his life, perhaps while he was sleeping or farming.  Regardless of the event, he wants the owner to understand the magnitude of what he’s seen.  These are signs that God exists:

                            Please, my involuntary host,
                            Forgive me if I seem to boast.
                            ‘Tis possible you may have seen,
                            Albeit through a rusty screen,
                            The same sign Heaven showed your guest.
                            Each knows his own discernment best.
                            You have had your advantages.
                            Things happened to you, yes,
                            And have occurred to you no doubt,
                            If not from sleeping out,
                            Then from the work you went about
                            In farming well—or pretty well.
                            And it is partly to compel
                            Myself, in forma pauperis,
                            To say as much I write you this.
                                                           (Frost 344)

The search for God’s existence as being a question that is unanswerable is important, because it is essentially the same thing as searching for origins and endings; is science not, after all, trying to search for God or rather the non-existence of God in striving to prove creation or the end of the world?  Moreover, does not imagination search to find the same answers?  The questions are all the same, and they are all unanswerable.  However, Frost gives us a way to find some sort of comfort.  He does not suggest that we find the ending or the “true answer”; instead, the process of searching is enough.  We should find comfort in the signs of what we already innately know.  One of the feelings we innately know may be an impulse to search for God or for beginnings and endings or both, which Frost suggests is essential to our existence.  However, what is important is to find the satisfaction and contentment in the search itself rather than forcing these searches to find answers that cannot be found.  The danger in forcing these searches will become apparent when we distinguish between positive and negative signs within the volume.

Positive Signs

        Going back to our original question--why choose steeple bush as the title?  In the context of what we have already discovered, it is important to discuss the difference between positive and negative signs within the volume.  The shooting star in “An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box” is obviously a positive sign:  it brings about ideas of God.  Because the shooting star is caused by two stars converging, it also represents Frost’s concept of metaphorical revelation.  For Frost, the best thing about a metaphor is that it always fails.  It is when the metaphor falls short of absolute portrayal of truth that there is a moment of understanding, or “a momentary stay against confusion,” because we recognize how it falls short of what we know.  Thus, the stars colliding provide the narrator of “An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box” with a moment of understanding.  We learn that the shooting star is a positive sign through its metaphorical ending.  Similarly, the steeple bush and the signs of nature’s cycle and the beauty of waste are positive signs as well.  They represent hope and, in a way, they come to represent a sign of God as well; we just have to recognize it as such.  Other positive signs that might not be so obvious in Steeple Bush are the signs of humanity.  Some signs of humanity are found by science in its method of searching.  In “To an Ancient” the narrator speaks to an unknown ancient man he names You.  The narrator has found artifacts that reveal something about the nature of this ancient man:

                            Your claims to immortality were two.
                            The one you made, the other one you grew.
                            Sorry to have no name for you but You.

                            We never knew exactly where to look,
                            But found one in the delta of a brook,
                            One in a cavern where you used to cook.

                            Coming on such an ancient human trace
                            Seems as expressive of the human race
                            As meeting someone living face to face.
                                                                    (Frost 345)

By finding these artifacts, the narrator finds some sort of ancient connection to the ancient person.  However, the two artifacts that he finds from the same person seem to contrast.  One item he finds is a bone, which he finds by the delta of a brook.  This seems intentionally ironic in light of the poem “Too Anxious for Rivers,” because it implies that the man might have been contemplating the same questions as the narrator of this poem.  The other item is a flint used to light a fire, which the narrator finds where the person must have cooked.  The narrator asserts that the bone is much more important than the flint:

                            We date you by your depth in silt and dust
                            Your probable brute nature is discussed.
                            At which point we are totally nonplussed.

                            You made the eolith, you grew the bone,
                            The second more peculiarly your own,
                            And likely to have been enough alone.

                            You make me ask if I would go to time
                            Would I gain anything by using rhyme?
                            Or aren’t the bones enough I live to lime.
                                                                        (Frost 345)

The narrator’s assertion that the bone is more important brings us back to the idea of waste and the cycle of nature.  The flint is just something of utility, it doesn’t really say much about humanity.  However, the bone is something that the man grew.  This word “grew” reinforces the idea that man exists in a cyclic nature.  Man grows, and he comes and goes, just like the steeple bush, but the race continues on in time.  This is evident by the fact that the narrator is there to find the bone thousands of years later.  The bone, then, represents humanity as a part of nature and its cycle, and in this way becomes a positive sign of humanity and of God’s existence, just as the steeple of a church, as in the poem "A Steeple on the House" somehow represents the hope for humanity to continue on as well.

Negative Signs

        If nature’s cycle and waste are such a positive sign, and the process of searching through science or imagination seem to be portrayed as a worthy endeavor “To find ‘twas the effort, the essay of love,” even though they can not find a true answer to their question, then an important question arises.  Why does Frost take such negative "shots" at science and imagination?  The poem that most clearly reinforces this question is “Skeptic,” which seems to completely write off science:

                            Far star that tickles for me my sensitive plate
                            And fries a couple of ebon atoms white,
                            I don’t believe I believe a thing state.
                            I put no faith in the seeming facts of light.

                            I don’t believe you’re the last in space,
                            I don’t believe you’re anywhere near the last,
                           I don’t believe what makes you red in the face
                            Is after explosion going away so fast.
                                                                        (Frost 353)

Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the word repeated many times in this poem, "belief."  It seems Frost is suggesting that science and imagination can be destructive when they quit the process of searching and begin to believe.  This leads us to the negative sign, the atomic bomb, in Steeple Bush, which contrasts with the positive sign of the steeple bush.
 While Frost sees a sign of hope for humanity in the steeple bush, he has seen another sign that is not so positive.  In “Bursting Rapture,” Frost introduces the atom bomb as the negative sign.  The narrator of this poem is complaining to a physician about his dismay at society’s move from farming to science.  He feels there was a time when honest farming was good enough, but now it seems that everyone is focused on science and learning, and the discipline of farming and hard work is too primitive:

                            I went to the physician to complain,
                            The time had been when anyone could turn
                            To farming for a simple way to earn;
                            But now ‘twas there as elsewhere, any gain
                            Was made by getting science on the brain;
                            There was so much more every day to learn,
                            The discipline of farming was so stern,
                            It seemed as if I couldn’t stand the strain.
                                                                        (Frost 362)

However, the doctor explains that this is a normal feeling, and that everyone feels this way.  All the nations complain of the same illness.  Once this illness becomes too hard to bear, that’s when something has to give.  That’s why the atom bomb was created and dropped:

                            But the physician’s answer was ‘There, there,
                            What you complain of all the nations share.
                            Their effort is a mounting ecstasy
                            That when it gets too exquisite to bear
                            Will find relief in one burst.  You shall see.
                            That’s what a certain bomb was sent to be.’
                                                                            (Frost 362)

Frost presents the bomb as a consequence of science, or perhaps the belief in science.  Frost suggests that the atom bomb is the type of thing that happens when people turn their searches into blind belief.  Thus, the atom bomb becomes a negative sign of humanity.  The atom bomb destroyed innocent lives unnaturally.  Yet, it was a product of years and years of research and imagination, which are supposed to be worthwhile and rewarding searches.  However, destruction was the result.  Where the steeple bush represents man as a part of the cycle of nature, the atom bomb represents man’s destruction of the cycle, in the same way government interfered in the natural cycle of the birches and the steeple bush in “Something for Hope.”

Steeple Bush as the Title and Frost’s Advice

        After getting intentionally getting lost in Steeple Bush, with the steeple bush as our landmark, we must find our way back to the title metaphor and ask our question again: “Why would Frost entitle this volume after the seemingly insignificant steeple bush weed?”  We have seen that the answer is probably more complex than it is clear, but we now have a few ideas we can work with.  First, for Frost the steeple bush is a weed and thus is an apt metaphor to represent waste.  Frost shows us in steeple bush that we can find beauty in waste.  Secondly, the steeple bush stands as a symbol for the cyclic pattern of nature.  Frost shows us that the cycle of nature can bring hope; so the steeple bush comes to represent hope as well.  This metaphor symbolizes both the beauty in waste and the hope in nature’s cycle.  We have also seen how Frost sees the world as existing in middles, not beginnings or endings.  Because the steeple bush exists in nature’s cycle it too represents a middle.  This contrasts with the ideas of science and imagination, which search for beginnings and endings.  Because the steeple bush represents middles and it also represents the beauty of waste and hope in nature’s cycle, it comes to represent all three of these ideas at once.

        At this point, we must take a brief step away from the steeple bush, to remember that in his exploration of middles, Frost sets up a tension between science and imagination.  By setting up this tension between two extremes, he is able to discuss the nature of asking questions with no answers, and demonstrate his theme of "only middles."  The steeple bush represents the middle of these two extremes, and is grounded in nature, which is a sign.  Frost’s dependence on signs is important because it offers some relief from asking unanswerable questions.  For Frost, searching for God the creator is an impossible journey, although not unrewarding.  However, he feels that there are signs we can see in everyday life that can provide us with suggestions, if not evidence, of God.  He also goes on to assert that he sees positive signs that represent humanity’s place in nature’s cycle, which we have already shown to represent hope.  Thus, the signs of God and humanity can be found in simple things like the steeple bush.  He has also seen negative signs--the atom bomb and government interference with nature’s cycle--threaten man’s place in nature’s cycle.  They also tend to be a case of science and imagination gone to extremes.

        Thus, with all these ideas going on, what do we find in the title, the steeple bush?  We find a metaphor that encompasses almost all of Frost’s major themes in the volume.  By capturing all these ideas in one metaphor, he fuses all these ideas into a pattern of unified understanding.  In this way, the steeple bush stands as a landmark for the poetry.  Whenever we get too lost, whether intentionally or not, we can look to the steeple bush to find some metaphorical or figurative guide.  Besides being a binding metaphor and a guide, the steeple bush also carries the connotation of Frost’s basic message in steeple bush, which should be the sum of all the concepts we have discussed.  Frost most clearly presents this message in “Something for Hope:”  “Patience and looking away ahead,”/ “And leaving some things to take their course.” Perhaps as one of Frost’s last volumes, he wished to leave a bit of fatherly advice to his readers, and he encapsulates this advice in an amazing volume of complex poetry and one simple title and metaphor, the Steeple Bush.
 

                                                        Work Cited

Frost, Robert. Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.  The Library of America, New York: 1995.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Michael Johnson
Sexual Name Mauling in "New Hampshire"
 

        In the poem “New Hampshire,” Robert Frost asserts his masculinity by downplaying the role of women and by establishing the power of men as leaders.  Frost most notably downplays women by establishing the state of New Hampshire as a female victim at the mercy of male conquerors; he also limits the presence of women in various social and political arenas.  As for the power of men, Frost blurs the role of himself with that of the narrator, asserting his own manly power and domain.  He also uses an Adamic power of “naming” in order to act as “a father, giving his name to all he sees and hears and feels” (Pearce 5, 140, 166)  (Genesis 2:19 reads: “[T]he Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.).  Indeed, “for the first time in his poetry,” Frost uses the “names of real people and places in New Hampshire” (Pritchard 156).  The practice of naming becomes excessive at times, but since the poem is so long, Frost succeeds in softening the bluntness of his names by using a variety of other manly devices as distractions and fillers.

        Frost divides the lengthy “New Hampshire” into almost-organized sections that provide different ways for him to assert masculinity and hide femininity.  In chronological order, the sections include: people linked with places, men of power, “specimens” of the state, sexual geography, escapist mountains, and the ambiguous “woods.”  In the end, Frost uses his “sprawling, discursive, conversational form” to go through these seemingly random sections and play peek-a-boo with the meanings of names and sexuality.  (Thompson 26).  While one looks for meaning within the poem, Frost’s “notes” to later poems of New Hampshire provide numerous jumping points for further discussion.  For the sake of brevity, though, I have chosen not to analyze the “notes” in this look at “New Hampshire.”

        Frost begins delving into sexuality with the poem’s very name.  As some critics have noted, to title a book or poem after a state is “a rather dangerous thing to do” because such an act invites “patronization as a self-proclaimed “regional” writer who promises to offer [readers] glimpses of charming New England things” (Pritchard 168).  Feminist critics offer another line of thought, asserting that while New England regionalism has been “a mode in which male writers [have] participated,” this style of writing has “come to be feminized.”  Their reasons include the writing’s traits of being “overly emotional,” filled with “putative nostalgia,” and concerned with the “investment of the self with others.”  This investment points to the “feminine dispersal of the artist’s authority”  (Kilcup 9).  Specifically, the feminine tradition’s “pleasure of gossip” repeatedly surfaces throughout “New Hampshire,” and Frost struggles to simultaneously embrace and rise above such a practice (Kilcup 110).

        From the poem’s opening line, readers confront a woman:  “I met a lady from the South who said…” (Frost 151.1).  In the next three stanzas, Frost repeats the “fundamentally masculine, strong and assertive ‘I,’ a central self that is forcefully defined” (Gilbert and Gubar 548).  Frost goes beyond mere self-assertion, though, for he “meets” certain people after the “lady from the South,” including: “a traveler from Arkansas,” “a Californian,” and “a poet from another state” (Frost 151.1, 9, 16, 25).

        With such a barrage of “meetings,” Frost the narrator does more than simply run into these people and engage in friendly conversation.  Rather, he asserts control over them by extracting information and “giving [readers] the facts” about other places (Pritchard 157).  However, Frost only names concrete places for two of the four people that he meets.  Not coincidentally, men live in these concretely-named places: the traveler from Arkansas and the Californian.  The vaguely-named places serve as homes for the feminine people that Frost meets: the “lady from the South” and the “poet from another state.”  The lady is feminine due to her sex, but she furthers her femininity by a reliance on “a form of gossip,” in which readers become drawn into a “private” conversation (Kilcup 109).  Frost spreads the feeling of gossip by the phrase “who said” of line 1, along with the entire second line: “(You won’t believe she said it, but she said it).”

        By these words, Frost both empowers and denounces the power of women. He empowers women by naming a woman as the first person that he “meets” along his “journey across [the] country” (Littell 25).  He also embraces the power of the feminine tradition of “orality” by centering the first stanza on a snippet of gossip, in which readers become forced to “listen” to what the “lady from the South” has to say (Kilcup 109).  However, Frost soon denounces the power of women in line 2, when readers become privy to his innermost doubts, the in-parenthesis “(You won’t believe…).”  Frost also discounts half of what she says in her shared bit of gossip, and he emphasizes a lack of societal utility through her words.  First the “lady” says that “‘None of my family ever worked, or had / A thing to sell’” (Frost 151.3-4).  Frost follows her words with the doubt-casting phrase, “I don’t suppose the work / Much matters” (4-5).  Though he agrees that “having anything to sell is what / Is the disgrace,” the lady’s family’s lack of “work” helps link a sense of worthlessness to both her and her kin.  Furthermore, the last few words of the first stanza dethrone whatever power that women could have wielded by stanza’s end.  The words read, “in man or state or nation” (8).  By association, “men” combine to form a “state,” and a state of men combine to form a “nation.”  The “lady,” so immediately named in line 1, falls into the background while the men take over.

        In addition to the vaguely-named “lady from the South” from the first stanza, the “poet from another state” serves as a vehicle for Frost to oversee the act of masculinity wrestling with femininity (25).  The “I met” phrase, while repeated from the previous three stanzas, distances Frost the narrator from the “zealot full of fluid inspiration” (26).  Rather than being an “overly emotional” zealot (and thus more feminine than masculine) from some “[other] state” in the realm of “New England regionalism,” Frost the narrator stands as an intelligent, level-headed man who overconfidently passes judgment on the poet before him (Kilcup 9).  Frost directly confronts the power of names as he explains that it was “in the name of fluid inspiration, / But in the best style of bad salesmanship” that the poet tried to make him “write a protest… against the Volstead Act”  (27-30; emphasis added).  Frost “names” “fluid inspiration” twice in two lines, and so he tries to force a deeply branded manly label onto an otherwise feminine presence.  Just like the “lady,” Frost does not associate the “poet” with a concrete location, thus detracting from the poet’s sense of masculine ownership.  As for the Volstead Act, Frost the narrator uses this act as a chance to enhance his manhood by besting another man.  Specifically, he “sells the idea” of offering a drink to the poet, who is so busy being a “zealous” opponent to Prohibition that he forgets to enjoy the very thing that he is fighting for: alcohol.  Conversely, the poet is a “bad salesman” because he fails to “sell” his idea of writing a protest.  As a result, he fails as man because he cannot financially support whatever family he might have.

        Some critics have directly related the constant references of “sales” in “New Hampshire” to Frost’s concern with “his ability to support his family and, hence, his masculinity” (Wilcox 8).  As Frost goes through the poem’s first few stanzas, he couples the power of names with that of commercial strength.  Those with relations to vague and weak names, the “lady from the South” and the “poet from another state,” have little control over finances and serve as poor examples of masculine power.  While the “lady” cannot be faulted for being a woman (and thus a poor example of masculine strength), her family neither “works” nor “sells.”  Thus, the men of her family share a weak masculinity in common with the “poet,” who acts in the “best style of bad salesmanship”  (Frost 151.28).  Despite Frost’s use of the word “best,” implying a playful paradox to “bad,” the poet serves as a poor example of a breadwinner, and thus a poor example of a man.

        The two people associated with concrete names in the opening stanzas of “New Hampshire” are the “traveler from Arkansas” and the “Californian”  (9, 16).  Though the relations to strong names imply the power and control of manhood (the Adamic father who names), Frost cannot help but show his femininity through the same reliance on gossip found in the opening stanza about the “lady from the South.”  Frost tries to masculinize the gossip of the traveler by explaining in line 10 that he “boasted” rather than “said,” because the lady “said.”  Furthermore, Frost the narrator asks about manly, breadwinning “commercial quantities” of Arkansas (12).  However, the phrase “on my guard” in line 13 furthers the notion of selling as an “illegitimate prodigality” that first surfaced in stanza 1 (Parini 209).  The “disgrace” of “having anything to sell” resurfaces because Frost the narrator quickly grows wary of asking about “commercial quantities.”  Instead of likewise responding “on his guard,” which would heighten a monetary “disgrace,” the traveler answers “Off his [guard],” implying his comfortable relationship with commercialism and sales (Frost 151.14).  Thus, though Frost as narrator tries to be masculine by seeking to control the conversation through asking a question, he fails.  The traveler’s “off-hand” remark signifies much greater confidence and manhood.

        While readers next meet the Californian in “New Hampshire,” a later stanza more readily relates to the commercial focus of the poem’s first few stanzas.  After the praising, anti-commercial, definitive statement, “It never could have happened in New Hampshire,” the stanza in question begins with, “The only person really soiled with trade”  (Frost 152.4-5).  In this stanza, readers discover a short string of masculine references: “[l]ike a lone actor,” “an old boyhood friend,” and “he was rich”  (152.16, 19, 24).  Frost’s “rags-to-riches in San Francisco” lament, “Oh, it was terrible as well could be,” echoes the first stanza’s disgrace of selling (152.28-29).  Thus, the lengthy stanza ends on a masculine note, though it is a note monetarily tainted and shamed.
 

        Going back to the Californian’s stanza, readers find an introduction to Frost’s new focus of the poem, which shifts from commercialism to male conquest.  While musing on a “blessed climate” and rare death rate, Frost uses several capitalized names in order to force a “heightened” meaning into his words (151.17-18).  The “Vigilance Committees,” while ghastly, imply importance with its capitals, and the mention of “Stefansson” and “the British Arctic” elevate “man” to a dominator and conqueror (151.19, 22-23).  As Jeffrey Cramer explains, Vilhjalmur Stefansson was a Canadian Arctic explorer during the early to mid 20th Century (Cramer 61).  Since Frost adds such a seemingly random name into the stanza, careful readers must look beyond the immediately-surrounding lines for links to other meanings.  One such link surfaces with the line: “She had one President (pronounce him Purse…” (152.34).  Frost here alludes to Franklin Pierce, president of the United States from 1853-1857 (Frost 972).  This second reference to a powerful man seems to assert men as leaders, but the previous stanza also establishes New Hampshire (the state) as a leader, specifically as a powerful female, mother, and anti-commercial nature lover:

                                   Just specimens is all New Hampshire has,
                                   One each of everything as in a show-case
                                   Which naturally she doesn’t care to sell (152.31-33; emphasis added).

Frost introduces the concept of female ownership in the first line of this stanza with the word “has.”  “Specimens” references the different people that Frost the narrator has met up to this point, including the feminine “lady from the South,” the “poet from another state,” and the manly “traveler from Arkansas” and “Californian.”  The word “[j]ust” lowers the “specimens” (no longer people) to below the state of New Hampshire.  Thus, even though New Hampshire is a female force, she wields ownership and power over other male forces.  She also embodies a sure sense of “nature,” for she “naturally… doesn’t care to sell.”  This anti-commercialism traces back to the family of the opening stanza, who never “worked, or had / A thing to sell” (151.3-4).

        By a careful choice of words, Frost elevates the female New Hampshire above the money-grubbing males.  He also uses the anti-commercialism of the state to transform its “material poverty into spiritual wealth.”  Specifically, readers find “One each of everything” within the “parsimonious borders” of New Hampshire, thus making the state “a little but perfect world,” “a Platonic heaven-on-earth”  (Parini 209).

        Despite such complimentary thoughts for New Hampshire, Frost “embraces every paradox and wants everything both ways at once” (Parini 210).  Thus, the “President” stanza continues on to show weaknesses of the state.  The first sign of weakness is the shift from the present “has” verb of the “specimens” stanza to the past “had” verbs of the “President” stanza.  New Hampshire’s strength has waxed and waned, for she “had” “one President,” “one Daniel Webster,” and “the Dartmouth needed to produce [Daniel Webster]” (Frost 152.34, 153.1, 3).  She also becomes somewhat of a wet nurse, merely producing men who go on to leave her.  Frost adds to the victimization of New Hampshire as a female by repeating a male name:  “She had one Daniel Webster.  He was all / The Daniel Webster ever was or shall be” (Frost 153.1-2).  The repetition of the same two-word name twice in two lines should raise even the most sedentary of eyebrows.  It is by this repetition that Frost calls attention to two things: to himself, through “Adamically naming” the things around him, and to other men, who have masculine labels and who leave their female creator, the mother state of New Hampshire (Pearce 5).

        At this point in the poem, the power of names combines with male dominion and rises to the textual surface of “New Hampshire,” displacing the previous foci of selling and commercialism.  While Frost named a variety of both states and people in the poem’s first few stanzas, “Stefansson” is the most vital name because it provides a link to the stanzas that follow the double-mention of “Daniel Webster.”  Stefansson leads the male charge as a male explorer, dominator, and conqueror of nature.  Next we find the President, a political leader, followed by Webster, a doubly-mentioned academic.  The string of male names continues in the later stanzas, and readers come upon the following: John Smith, Adam, Mankind, a male reformer, a chicken farmer, Chaucer, and Herrick.  Before the masculine string ends with the mention of “one witch,” readers find that the string of male names embodies much more than a list of labels.

        Frost praises men and denounces women in the stanza that begins with, “I call her [New Hampshire] old” (Frost 153.4).  The reference to age follows the uses of “had” in the preceding stanza, implying that the golden age of New Hampshire has long since passed.  Frost goes beyond merely calling the state old, though, as he describes the “one family” who settled “[b]efore the era[s] of colonization” and “exploration” (153.4-7).  In making this chronological difference, Frost imbues the female and the family with timelessness, much like that of the eternal “mother earth.”  However, mention of John Smith shows that men drive the previously-named “eras” forward, propelling humankind to new colonies and habitations.  The women, then, assume a less aggressive, less important role in society.  Richard Poirier describes this as “the plight of the women who have nothing but a home to keep—with too little work if childless…” (Poirier 113).  Frost brings up the subservient role of women with these lines:

                            John Smith remarked them as he coasted by
                            Dangling their legs and fishing off a whar
                            At the Isles of Shoals, and satisfied himself
                            They weren’t Red Indians, but veritable
                            Pre-primitives of the white race, dawn people,
                            Like those who furnished Adam’s sons with wives; (153.8-13)

It may seem unfair that John Smith so prematurely “remarked” (passed judgment) on the “one family” of New Hampshire “[w]hose claim is good,” but the family does nothing productive as he coasts by.  Rather, they merely dangle their legs and fish, which implies that the family (and thus the women, because the men explore and conquer, leaving the women at home) has “too little work” to do.  Also, the usefulness of the females in the “family” becomes apparent with the extended phrase, “John Smith… satisfied himself.”  While John Smith probably only “satisfied” his curiosity, he must have also fancied a sexual “satisfaction” when he mused that the family “furnished Adam’s sons with wives.”  The verb “furnished” implies a very one-dimensional, physical “use” of women for Adam, and thus for men.

        Later on in the “John Smith” stanza, readers come upon one of Frost’s most blatant references to names in all of “New Hampshire:” “Pity [John Smith] didn’t . . .take their name.  They’ve since told me their name…”  (153.17, 19).  Like the earlier repetition of the name “Daniel Webster,” the double-mention of “name” calls attention to the word.  The attention shows Frost’s reliance on manly labels, on the scientific organization of names, to put things in their place.  In the poem’s opening stanza, Frost names “the South” in order to put the “lady” physically down below the power of men.  In the “John Smith” stanza, Frost names Smith and Adam to associate men with power and women with social and sexual subservience.

        Despite his obsession and reliance on names, Frost is wily in his ways, and so he tries to hide his practice and backtrack from using concrete names in the stanzas following that of John Smith.  In the next stanza, Frost mentions “[o]ne real reformer” without a specific name (153.28).  However, Frost cannot resist subtly elevating the male dominion, for he muses on the “boys” who “get out of college”  (153.32).  He does not discuss the college-age “girls,” probably because, in Frost’s intentionally twisted vision of New Hampshire, they are busy keeping “a home” and raising children (Poirier 113).

        In the stanza following the “real reformer,” readers come upon another nameless man.  This time it is a chicken farmer from Philadelphia, and the last two lines of his stanza are the most important.  In them, Frost describes two types of his chickens:  Dorkings because they’re spoken of by Chaucer,/Sussex because they’re spoken of by Herrick (154.4-5).  As Jeffrey Cramer explains, “a Dorking is a five-toed, square-formed breed of poultry,” and “a Sussex is a four-toed fowl from Sussex.  Chaucer does not refer to Dorkings by name,” and “Herrick does not refer to Sussex by name” (Cramer 62).  Though these two literary giants do not directly use names for the chickens, Frost does.  As a result, his seemingly random indulgence of four names in two lines shows his reliance on a scientific naming process.  This indulgence also shows his frantic struggle to assert himself as a manly and controlling author.

        Like most other passages of “New Hampshire,” the references to chickens and literary giants vanish just as quickly as they appear.  Frost then returns to musing on commercialism, and although he stops naming specific masculine things, the previously established string of manly names does not definitively end until the mention of the “one witch—old style” of New Hampshire (Frost 154.23).  In a strange use of the parenthesis, Frost the narrator does not describe this witch at all.  Instead, he goes on to describe the “only other witch [he] ever met,” who was “young,” “beautiful,” and thus more feminine (154.27).  Despite her femininity, the young witch’s social power shrinks by stanza’s end, for Frost remarks: “[h]er husband was worth millions. / I think he owned some shares in Harvard College” (154.34-35).  By these closing lines of the stanza, Frost forms an “alliance between gender and money” by establishing the male as breadwinner and the female (even a witch) as a stay-at-home maid (Kilcup 122).  By naming Harvard College, an elite, Ivy-League school of well renown, Frost also distances the intelligence level and general social standing of men from that of women.  Karen Kilcup explains: “Mass culture has been gendered female, while elite culture is presumed to be the domain of a harder, more severe masculine artist” (Kilcup 10).  Frost asserts both his own masculinity and that of the poem’s male characters by his naming and association with such an elite college as Harvard.  Furthermore, while the young witch’s husband owns his shares of Harvard, the witch sits boxed in her own home, reads her “letters locked in boxes,” and furthers a microcosmic life (Frost 154.29).

        Following the “witches” stanza, Frost takes a break from emphasizing names.  He tries to disguise his obsession by resurrecting his references to “specimens,” “showcases,” and New Hampshire the state as anti-commercial and nature loving.  Frost tries so hard that he even repeats verbatim a phrase from an earlier stanza: “One each of everything as in a showcase” (155.5, 152.32).  This phrase sits uncomfortably on the page because of its repetition and rushed mechanics.  A comma separating “everything” from “as” would slow the speech down, but the verbal hurry serves to speed readers along and distract them from the previous emphasis on names.

        After a bit more “easy-going, gossipy soliloquy” on New Hampshire’s anti-commercialism, Frost returns to his obsession with names just as an alcoholic returns to the bottle (Littell 25).  He devotes nearly an entire 35-line stanza to a variety of names of geographic places, beginning with the physically large and going down to the small.  The “Union” heads the list, followed by Vermont, Connecticut, and Canada (155.36-7, 156.7-8).  The “[s]mall towns” come next, including Lost Nation, Bungey, Muddy Boo, Poplin, and Still Corners (156.11-12).  The sheer absurdity of such a motley bunch of places should cause readers to pause, for the names are as seemingly random as the earlier references to Stefansson, Dorkings, and Sussex.

        By placing such strange words into the poem, Frost generates an aura about himself as both lofty man and hyper-intelligent narrator.  He propels forward a “self-generated masculinity,” which “sympathetic [Frost] readers” confirm (Kilcup 6).  By his dissemination of named knowledge, he also implies that readers are “in the company of a wise, shrewd, humorous person with an uncommon gift of common speech…” (Littell 25).  However, the close and careful (vice “sympathetic”) Frost readers will recognize his use of names as an obsessive mask used to strike a low blow at the female forces of “New Hampshire.”  Following his litany of “[s]mall towns,” the blow comes slowly but surely.  He leads into the act with these lines: “And I remember one whose name appeared / Between the pictures on a movie screen…” (Frost 156.17-18; emphasis added).  This “name” is Easton, a tiny city that is laughed at, through association, by all of the neighboring, larger cities, including Franconia, Littleton, Manchester, and New York (156.25-28).  After a very hearty round of laughter aimed at the physically and phallically small Easton, Frost muses:

                            … What has Easton left to laugh at,
                              And like the actress exclaim, ‘Oh, my God’ at?
                              There’s Bungey; and for Bungey there are towns,
                              Whole townships named but without population (156.30-33)

By comparing the small town of Easton to “the actress,” Frost associates a weak masculinity with femininity.  Furthermore, the actress “exclaims” because she is humored, dismayed, and disappointed, thus implying the importance for even something so small as Easton to compete and exert dominance over something else.  Easton does become the dominator, and the “townships named but without population” become the dominated.  After coming upon this line, William Pritchard remarks that “[v]istas of emptiness suddenly open out of this embryonic tall tale”  (Pritchard 157).  The emptiness “opens” because of the hollowness of names “without population.”  Though Frost furiously tries to make names into manly and scientific labels, he briefly exposes the futility of such an act.

        Jay Parini, among other critics, maintains that after the “Easton” stanza, the “central section of the poem dwells on the New Hampshire mountains as suggestive of the imagination as a whole” (Parini 210).  Manly names abound among the imagination-filled mountains, and the ever-present struggle between masculinity and femininity also joins in.  The major sign of the sex struggle comes with the lines: “Emerson said, ‘The God who made New Hampshire / Taunted the lofty land with little men’” (Frost 157.4-5).  Emerson serves as a clear masculine symbol, but the question of God’s sex becomes somewhat of a problem.  Traditionally, God has been viewed as “masculine,” even though “Christian theology tells us that God is neither male nor female in himself” (McInerny 1).  New Hampshire, though, has already been established as clearly feminine, and the “little men” likewise seem to be clearly masculine.  However, the quality of being “little” hints at the weak masculinity of the men, who fail to phallically measure up to the nameless male standard of Frost.  Frost the narrator then revels in the weakness of the men in his poem by building himself up in comparison.  As omnipotent creator and powerful, controlling namer, he sits even higher than the “lofty land” and rules with mystery and strength.
 

        Specifically, though the “little men” fail to measure up, Frost uses an assortment of names to assert his own masculinity.  He starts with the lines: “I’m what is called a sensibilitist / Or otherwise an environmentalist” (Frost 157.18-19).  By placing two wordy names in adjacent lines, Frost “mocks the academic critics who would seek to characterize him”  (Parini 210).  Frost mocks them because he seeks to rise above the labels of other men; he also seeks to rise above his environment, as the following brash lines show:

                               I refuse to adapt myself a mite
                               To any change from hot to cold, from wet
                               To dry, from poor to rich, or back again
                               I make a virtue of my suffering
                               From nearly everything that goes on round me. (157.20-24)

A “theme of personal progress through trial and suffering, “the trial by existence”” rises to the surface of these words, but Frost quickly reverts back to Tarzan-like name spewing (Parini 211).  In the next few stanzas, he names the countries of Samoa, Russia, Ireland, England, France, and Italy, and the states of New Hampshire (multiple times), Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and Vermont (157.30-37).  Frost tops this comical, excessive list of geographic names with a list of his “friends,” who include:  ". . . Hall of Windham, Gay of Atkinson,/Bartlett of Raymond (now of Colorado),/Harris of Derry, and Lynch of Bethlehem (158.7-9).  Though Frost focuses on a human, vice earthly, element of life by using the word “friends,” his list ties people to places, and thus humans to earth.  He even gives readers the private, parenthesis-bound, gossip-like (and thus feminine) inside scoop to Bartlett’s current location: “(now of Colorado).”  All of the so-called “friends,” though, are men, and this “man-to-concrete-place” association echoes the opening stanzas of “New Hampshire,” in which the two concrete places (Arkansas and California) served as the domain of men (the traveler and the Californian).

        The next few stanzas cover a broad range of topics, ranging from the “Russian novel in America” to the “Mid-Victorians” (158.16, 159.5).  However, many of the topics sit as recycled references from earlier in the poem, for Frost resurrects both the “lofty mountains” of “old New Hampshire” that “fall a little short”  (159.19-20, 160.27) and the self-imposed “sensibilitist” label (160.15).  One “new” topic that critics often latch onto begins with the lines: “Lately in converse with a New York alec / About the new school of the pseudo-phallic…” (160.30-31).  The word “new” sits twice in two lines, calling attention to itself, but the “pseudo-phallic” phrase steals the show.  That is, Frost once again delves into a questionable manhood, and he furthers this notion by a discussion of “choices.”  In a twisted play of words on the manly notion of “choosing your destiny,” the New York alec declares: “‘Choose you which you will be—a prude, or puke…” (160.34).  In other words, the “urban intellectual supposedly makes the case that the writer must describe reality[,] warts and all[,] or retreat into “prudery”” (Parini 211).  Frost brusquely rejects these manly-labeled names offered by the “alec” and retorts, in typical Frost fashion: “‘Me for the hills where I don’t have to choose’” (160.36).  Thus, Frost avoids a name for himself and runs back into his safe omnipotence as the elusive, manly narrator.

        After Frost anwers the “New York alec’s” question with a rather “smart alec” remark, the closing stanza then uses names to show the struggle of masculinity and femininity.  The most striking example of a struggle comes with the reference to “he [who] dropped the ax / And ran for shelter” (161.4-5).  To put his “special terror” of “dendrophobia” metaphorically, the so-called “man” had a schizophrenic problem with a schizophrenic “grove of trees” (161.9-10, 3).  That is, even though he had a phallus of his own, he grew terrified when confronted with the much larger, always-erect phalluses of nature.  Simultaneously and yet conversely, he also felt immasculated for being a man in the predominately-feminine wilderness of Frost’s poetry.  Thus, he speaks of “dejectedly” taking a “seat upon the intellectual throne” because he feels inadequate in two ways: phallically in comparison to the masculine trees, and sexually when compared to the feminine wilderness (161.19-20).   Of course, Frost gives no mention to women because they do not belong near a throne in “New Hampshire"; they are busy at home with the house and children.  Likewise, when Frost describes “the days when Ahaz sinned / By worship under green trees in the open,” he does not mention women (161.23-24).  Despite any penis envy that they might have (which they most likely keep secret), women do not stand in awe and “worship” the phallic symbols (trees) of nature as men do, because women do not have a phallus of their own to compare.  They also do not “worship” nature because they exist more in-tune with wilderness then men do.  In the case of Frost's poetry generally, even though his men leave the women at home, the women often daydream about escaping into the trees.  The importance of a “name” in this complex, sexual struggle relates back to “dendrophobia,” which is a wordy, intellectual veil that covers a man’s innermost feelings of inadequacy and confusion.

        Just as “the man” feels inadequate among the trees in the closing stanza of “New Hampshire,” Robert Frost feels queasy about sexuality throughout the entire poem as well.  He harbors a “pressing need to protect his “structural integrity of manhood,” which is threatened by the mother and, by extension, all women” (Kilcup 14, Kearns 29).  Frost cannot handle the threat, and so the structure and manhood of his poem fail.  He frantically runs through the stanzas, peppering them with names of men and other masculine symbols, but eventually trips and takes a hard fall.  His last wordy name, “dendrophobia,” encapsulates a bundle of sexual oppositions that trace back through the entire poem.  The name-within-name title of “New Hampshire” even sits apart from the poem’s last line: “At present I am living in Vermont” (162.8).  Thus, Frost contradicts himself in the end and recoils from his own name.  He also follows the lead of the man who “dropped the ax,” for he soon drops his pen (161.4).  For the sake of his manhood, Frost must have known what he desperately needed: a therapist.


                                                            Works Cited

Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost Among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own
     Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1996.

Frost, Robert. Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays. New York: Library of America, 1995.

“Genesis.” The Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the
     Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. cited in Kilcup, 6.

Kearns, Katherine. Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
    cited in Kilcup 14.

Kilcup, Karen L. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1998.

Littell, Robert. “Stone Walls and Precious Stones.” The New Republic 37 (Dec. 5, 1923): Part 2,
    25-26, from Robert Frost: The Critical Reception. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. New York: Burt
    Franklin & Co., Inc., 1977.

McInerny, Ralph, ed.  “Does the Bible Support the Feminist God/ess?” Catholic Dossier March/April 1996.
    29 April 2002.  http://www.catholic.net/RCC/Periodicals/Dossier/0304-96/feminist.html

Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1999.

Pearce, Roy. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1961. cited in
    Kilcup, 6.

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Way of Knowing. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1993.

Thompson, Lawrence and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart
    and Winston, 1981.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Casey Kirkpatrick
The Gothic in Robert Frost's Poetry

“Courage is of the heart by derivation,
And great it is.  But fear is of the soul.
And I’m afraid.”
   -Keeper, A Masque of Mercy
 
 

Opening

        Robert Frost did not base his poetry on any genre.  He was very independent and always conscious of avoiding any particular school of thought because he did not want his works to be labeled or grouped.  However, there are enough gothic elements that sneak into his poetry that he could be considered a Gothic poet if he had wanted the title.  At a dinner in his honor for his eightieth birthday, Lionel Trilling toasted Frost, calling him, “the most terrifying poet of our time.”  Gothic literature is a fascinating genre in that each author chooses which elements to incorporate, which to ignore, and which to invent.  Therefore, many of Frost’s poems that can be considered “Gothic” both borrow from a writing tradition over two hundred years old and enrich the genre through his contributions.  The role of the gothic varies from poem to poem in Frost’s collection.  Sometimes it is merely to add dark attraction to make it more appealing to the reader, while other times he wants to hint at the horrors implied by the unknown.

        In the introduction to Contesting the Gothic, James Watt warns, “[remain] alert to the fact that writers such as Walpole, Reeve, Lewis, and Radcliffe had different agendas . . .”  Indeed, he later claims, “Walpole resorted to the category of Gothic as a means of stating his privileged ability to amuse himself however he chose,” (Watt, 6).  Scholars may see traces of Frost in that statement.  He loved to play tricks on the reader, and often his amusement shines through the language of the poetry.  The purpose of Watt’s book is to trace the jagged evolution of the Gothic genre, although the outcome of the study is ultimately that each author had a different purpose and way of using the Gothic genre.  Perhaps someday Frost will get a chapter in a book on the Gothic, because he certainly has his own unique uses for the genre.  David Punter, a leading Gothic scholar, describes the genre as, “a literature whose key motifs are paranoia, manipulation, and injustice, and whose central project is understanding the inexplicable, the taboo, the irrational,” (Watt, 2).  Frost has a keen grasp over these themes and displays his mastery time and again.

        Though Frost uses Gothic elements in every one of his volumes of poetry, this paper will not look beyond the first four volumes.  Frost’s early collections were opportunities for him to experiment with different styles to find his own voice, and to discover the best way to compose each poem.  The Gothic is quickly established as a tool he can turn to frequently, and he does so in A Boy’s Will.  In the next three volumes, the Gothic is more at his command rather than a resource, as he continues to assert himself as a poet, culminating with "Two Witches."  Although there are plenty more examples of the Gothic in Robert Frost’s poetry beyond the first four volumes, cataloging them would be redundant, and beyond the scope of this project.

Gothic in A Boy’s Will

        Frost opens his first volume of poetry with "Into My Own," which has proven to be a spectacular introduction to his works because it incorporates so many elements that make Frost the poet that he is.  The language of the first stanza is particularly gothic.  The images he conjures include “dark trees,” a “mask of gloom,” and “the edge of doom.”  In this poem, the images illustrate the narrator’s wish for risk and adventure.  In the second stanza the narrator says that he prefers the dark trees as opposed to open land.  Therefore, the dark imagery has a certain romantic attraction to it, and the intent is to share the desire for risk and adventure with the reader (Frost, 15).

        The gothic nature of the second poem of the volume immediately jumps out at the reader with the title, "Ghost House," which is fittingly narrated by a ghost.  Humanity’s reluctant belief in the supernatural and undead is a cornerstone in the foundation of the Gothic genre.  A key distinction to note is that Frost specifically chooses the word “ghost” instead of “haunted.”  Therefore, the word in the title is a metaphor that enriches the lonely, melancholy mood of the poem rather than evoking the fear and excitement that often goes along with supernatural beings.  The loneliness that pervades this entire poem is another key gothic element.  Anyone who has seen a handful of horror movies knows that the worst thing that can happen to a person is to be alone, because there are countless dangers all around that are seeking to prey on the vulnerability of humans.  However, the true horror of this poem is the infinite nature of the ghost’s existence that is implied.  The house where he resides has been abandoned long ago, and nature is well on its way to reclaiming the land.  The ghost can only watch as the seasons change and animals thrive; the ghost can only stare in stasis (Frost, 15-16).

        "Storm Fear" is another poem with a title that begs to be labeled gothic.  “Fear” is perhaps the penultimate gothic word.  Although not all gothic literature is meant to scare people, good gothic works often simulate the adrenaline and tension that are often associated with fear.  “Storm” may or may not be considered a gothic word.  On one hand, the idea of uncontrollable forces is very much a gothic theme.  On the other hand, the forces are natural, not supernatural.  Since Frost is not alive to argue the semantics of the title of his poem, the reader must assume that paired with “fear,” the emphasis of “storm” is on the uncontrollable, not natural, aspect of the nature of a storm.  Any doubts are further settled in the first line, which reads, “When the wind works against us in the dark.”  The focus is on the oppressive nature of the storm against people who are defenseless against it.  Frost often sneaks in the word “dark” in his poems, which is another key Gothic word, because the dark is a perfect metaphor for the unknown.  Gothic literature is based on the unknown and the unexplainable, and Robert Frost does not hesitate to make use of this aspect of the genre time and again.  Lines four through six in this poem paint a terrifying image.  He calls the wind, “the beast,” who is whispering to the inhabitants of the house to “Come out!”  To take the metaphor another step, Satan is sometimes called “the Beast,” and often in the Bible and literature, he is a tempter who tries to get people to do things that seem good but are really bad for them.  Later in the poem, the narrator says, “ . . . the fire dies at length.”  Again, the setting of darkness allows the reader to be able to understand the narrator’s fear.  The mental image of the slowly dying fire is also very gothic in the orange, black, and red colors.  Finally, the last line, “And save ourselves unaided,” reinforces the theme of an individual against overpowering, uncontrollable forces (Frost, 19).

        "To the Thawing Wind" feels more like an incantation than a poem.  After the first two lines, each line has seven syllables, giving it a defined rhythm, especially when combined with the punctuation consistently at the end of each line.  Part of Robert Frost’s gothic nature is his affinity for magic, and this is the first poem where it is obvious.  His incantation is like a spell to harness the energy of the poem.  This poem is actually a really good foil to "Storm Fear."  In "Storm Fear" the characters are afraid of the wild elements of the storm, and the narrator is timid.  In "To the Thawing Wind" the narrator almost resembles the wizard out of Fantasia, taking control over chaos.  Although the Gothic deals with the fears of humans, the genre also deals with confronting those fears to overcome them.  It is a dark genre because it peers into the darkest recesses of humanity, but it can be uplifting when people manage to find courage in those hidden corners.  In the second half of the poem, the narrator orders the storm to “Melt the glass and leave the sticks/ Like a hermit’s crucifix.”  The lines are noticeable because they are the only ones without a punctuation mark to separate them.  The crucifix is another interesting choice on Frost’s part, because in Gothic literature the crucifix is one of the few tools people have to control supernatural monsters like vampires or werewolves, just as the narrator tries to control the weather (Frost, 21).  Frost also demonstrates his Elizabethan education in this poem, as it is very similar to Act III scene ii of King Lear, where Lear screams at the storm, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!  Rage!  Blow!” (Shakespeare, 57).  The only major difference is that the narrator in Frost’s version is a brash young boy instead of a proud old man.  The brash, young man is a more fitting protagonist for a gothic setting.

        "In a Vale" is another poem in which Frost toys around a little with magic and fantasy.  Frost has similar fun playing around with "Pan with Us", although that poem does not really contain any gothic elements other than the title character being a magical creature.   A key to the setting in "In a Vale" is the mist.  Like darkness, mist has an unknown quality to it, as if it is keeping secrets.  Frost’s description of the nighttime creatures in this poem make them out to be faeries, and they carry sexual undertones with them, especially in the fourth stanza.  Sexuality is another big component of Gothic literature, from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto all the way up to Anne Rice and her popular Gothic novels of today.  The reason for the sexuality in gothic works is probably that, like fear, sexual desires are usually buried in the inner recesses of people.  Part of the reason the genre is so popular is that it lets people know that these feelings and desires are universal, and they do not need to feel guilty about them.  Sexual desire is also very effective in creating tension in a situation.  One more note about this poem is about the last line in the third stanza, which reads, “That the stars were almost faded away.”  This is similar in concept to the dying fire of "Storm Fear," although in context the image is not as intense in "In a Vale" (Frost, 24-25).

        "The Demiurge’s Laugh" is the most gothic poem in A Boy’s Will.  It has a lot of parallels to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown".  According to www.dictionary.com, the Demiurge is, “a deity in Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and other religions who create[d] the material world and is often viewed as the originator of evil.”  Gothic literature deals with dark arts, and it does not get much darker than the originator of evil.  The Demiurge is a Satanic figure, and these unnatural, very powerful abilities that the creature has makes it a perfect gothic villain.  The narrator is running through the woods on something called “the Demon’s trail,” although he does not believe that the eerie name is anything more than a scary title.  The narrator is seeking fear by running through the woods, although he is not expecting to find any real danger.  It is just like watching a horror movie.  The audience wants to experience the thrill of fear, but they do not want permanent consequences to result from the dangerous situation.  Frost again clings to the dusk setting, as the runner is out, “just as the light was beginning to fail.”  Frost seems hung up on the theme of light fading into darkness in this volume of poetry.  The woods are also a gothic setting.  It is not as obvious as a castle on a hill, but the woods are a commonplace setting for innumerable classic horror movies.  Many of the elements of gothic literature are present in a forest.  Certainly the unknown is a big factor in the woods.  There are so many trees and shadows that things can hide in.  There is also plenty of danger in a forest.  The risks range from getting lost to having a lethal encounter with an animal.  Frost writes many poems about the woods, some of which incorporate these gothic traits, but none in A Boy’s Will that makes the woods such a haunted and terrifying place.  While the narrator is running through the woods, he hears a noise, and the second stanza begins, “The sound was behind me instead of before.”  Again because it happened out of sight, there is a sense of the unknown that creates mystery and tension, making the poem more stimulating.  In reference to the laugh, the narrator says, “And well I knew what the Demon meant.”  This is a typical Frost move: he forces a question that he does not answer.  The narrator supposedly knows what the Demon meant by the laugh, but he never tells the reader.  This can be frustrating to some readers, but it simply adds more mystery.  A great horror story has very few details.  The more that can be left to the reader’s imagination, the better.  People will fill in the unspoken details with their own personal fears, making the story hit closer to home.  This is reflected again in the actions of the narrator.  He does not stop to confront the Demon.  Rather, he runs away as fast as he can, propelled by the horrible images his mind has created from hearing the laugh.  The Demon does not actually do anything in the poem other than laugh.  The rest of the poem is fueled by the narrator’s fear and paranoia of the danger that the laugh represents.  The beauty of "The Demiurge’s Laugh," and indeed the power of the Gothic genre, is that the reader automatically assumes that there is danger behind the Demon’s laugh because the narrator’s fears transfer to the reader easily through Frost’s use of carefully chosen language (Frost, 33).

Gothic in North of Boston and Mountain Interval

        A Boy’s Will was dense with poems that could be classified as gothic.  North of Boston was a completely different type of work than Frost’s first volume of poetry, and there are not as many traces of the gothic.  The primary reason for this is that the poems of North of Boston deal with stories and conversations between people; therefore, there is no need for an inhuman element.  One might guess "The Death of a Hired Man" could be gothic based on the title and the subject.  However, Frost treats the death as a natural, regular occurrence, and the death loses all its darkness and mystery.  "The Code" even treats a murder plot as a practical event rather than an unspeakable crime.

        Two poems that utilize a certain aspect of the Gothic are "A Hundred Collars" and "The Fear."  Both of them deal with paranoia- the characters have irrational yet uncontrollable fears.  Doctor Magoon in the first of the two poems is a small man in comparison with his roommate Layfayette, whose neck is four sizes larger than Magoon’s.  The Doctor’s impression of the man is that he is “a brute.”  Lafayette tries to have a conversation with him, but Magoon only gives cold, one-sentence answers.  Frost shows why he is a master at this type of dialogue poetry:  he can demonstrate Maggon’s fear with very little language other than the conversation between the two principle characters.  Lafayette drops lines like, “Come, if you’re not afraid,” and, “There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people.”  North of Boston came under some criticism as to whether or not it was truly poetry, but to be able to convey such complex emotions with so little language makes Frost one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets (Frost, 49-55).

        "The Fear" is a shorter poem that demonstrates paranoia even more effectively.  The majority of the poem is a disagreement between a man and a woman.  They are on a dark road with only a lantern to see the way, and she claims to have seen a face.  The more he disagrees with her, the more sure she becomes that there is a man out on the road, hiding from and watching them.  There is a theme of discontentment in the female characters throughout North of Boston.  When the man cannot hear the noises in the dark that she claims to hear, she seems to be grasping at straws, almost as if she wants something more exciting out of the journey than just a dull walk with her husband.  He tries to defuse the fear using logic, while she dramatizes the incident, trying to make seeing a face on the side of the road a bigger deal than it really is.  She recalls for us the narrator in "The Demiurge’s Laugh," who is actively seeking the rush of adrenaline from fear.  The ending of the poem is very interesting, and could be interpreted several ways.  She discovers that there was someone outside the carriage that she saw, although the stranger claims to be harmless, out for a walk with his son.  However, right at the very end, she cries out to Joel and drops the lantern.  Once again, the image of the lantern extinguishing into darkness/unknown is perfectly gothic.  The reader does not know if the final lines justify her fear because the man attacks her, or if Joel is justified and her actions are driven by paranoia.  The best scary campfire stories are the ones with no ending, leaving the audience to fill in the grisly details with their own imagined horrors, which are generally worse than the narrator could come up with anyhow.  Also, by articulating horrors, the audience gains control over their fear.  Frost demonstrates that he is not only a master of language, but also skilled in the art of when to leave language out (Frost, 89-92).

        Mountain Interval is a "bear" of a volume of poetry, and quite probably Frost’s best.  Many of the poems are masterpieces, and several contain gothic elements used to enhance the poetry.  "The Hill Wife" is one of the most important poems for this thesis.  "The Hill Wife" is subdivided into five parts, each with a gothic twist.  The first subdivision is titled “Loneliness” and is narrated by the hill wife.  Loneliness is a common gothic theme, because it focuses on the individual.  Being around others gives people a sense of security that the gothic genre tries to strip from characters.  Famous gothic novels like Dracula and The Castle of Otranto take place in remote castles with a handful of characters, not in big cities with thousands of other people.  The next section, “House Fear," incorporates many of the gothic themes discussed earlier in this paper, including darkness and loneliness.  Further examination is redundant.  The third subdivision, “The Smile," is interesting.  The line in parentheses is particularly malicious- “and he was pleased/ To have a vision of us old and dead.”  To take pleasure in the suffering of others is a dark trait of humanity that is usually suppressed or ignored, except in Gothic literature where it is exploited.  Perhaps scarier than the unknown is bringing to the surface what we do know about ourselves and try to repress.  The last two lines read, “I wonder how far down the road he’s got./ He’s watching from the woods as like as not.”  Just as in The Fear, the female character is fantasizing about things that may or may not be true, creating a sense of paranoia to fill discontentment, in this case caused by loneliness.  “The Oft-Repeated Dream” is a gothic tour-de-force crammed into a trio of four-line stanzas.  Frost is able to capture a childlike paranoia, describing the fear of a tree outside a window as if the tree were a child  afraid of a monster in the closet.  He uses personification on the tree, such as when Frost writes, “For the dark pine that kept/ Forever trying the window-latch . . .”  The last stanza starts off claiming that “[The tree] had never been inside the room,” and then talks about the fear of what the tree might do.  Obviously the tree itself is relatively harmless, but combining the unknown potential of what it could do with the darkness of night, and also the loneliness of being the only one awake to fear the tree, makes this a strongly gothic poem.  “The Impulse” has some gothic images in it, but little that bears mentioning without repetition (Frost, 122-124).

        "The Bonfire," like many of Robert Frost’s poems, is not Gothic itself but it uses a gothic setting for atmosphere.  The opening lines are classic- “Oh, let’s go up the hill and scare ourselves,/ As reckless as the best of them tonight . . .”  Other key phrases in the first stanza that are too perfect to skim over without mentioning are the images of “dark converging paths” and the last statement, “Let wild fire loose we will . . .”  The poem itself is about teaching children about war.  The gothic aspects of the poem, which "The Bonfire" is riddled with, hint at supernatural horrors.  The purpose of scaring the children with supernatural horrors is so that they are not as afraid of the natural horror of war.  It is interesting that Frost chooses a bonfire as opposed to a campfire for the setting.  The campfire is generally where scary, supernatural stories are told, and the fire is small and manageable.  A bonfire, like war, is manmade, yet there is a threat that it can become an uncontrollable force at the blink of an eye.  Consider the last four lines of the poem:

                             “War is for everyone, for children too.
                            I wasn’t going to tell you and I mustn’t.
                             The best way is to come up hill with me
                             And have our fire and laugh and be afraid.”

As in "The Demiurge’s Laugh" and "The Fear," people seek fear, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes for the thrill, sometimes for humility.  In this case, they seek comfort in supernatural fears to overlook the horrors of humanity (Frost, 125-127).

         “Out, Out---” is another great Frost poem.  The title itself is from Macbeth V.v., when Macbeth gives the speech comparing life to the flame of a candle.  Macbeth itself is a gothic work.  Another gothic element of the poem is when the saw “Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap-.”  Frost again uses personification to plant a seed of supernatural fear into an everyday object.  Although the poem incorporates gothic elements to make it more attractive to readers, the poem is not really gothic on its own, much like "Death of a Hired Man" (Frost, 131).

New Hampshire

        Frost’s Gothic masterpiece, "The Witch of Coös," is in New Hampshire, but first there are some other poems that bear honorable mentions for his use of the Gothic.  "Paul’s Wife" is second only to "The Witch of Coös" as far as fascinating poems in New Hampshire.  The creation of his wife has many similarities to the Frankenstein monster.  However, the driving force of the poem is the dark, jealous inner feelings of Paul.  The wife that he creates eventually turns him into the monster.  He creates a wife from something inhuman, and then he is torn between treating her like a beloved wife or an object, nothing more than a piece of wood that he carved (Frost, 178-181).

        "The Witch of Coös" is the most unusual and blatantly gothic poem in Frost’s repertoire.  It includes everything, from the supernatural to elements of danger to twisted love stories to murder.  In New Hampshire Frost tries to experiment with new styles.  The title poem itself is unlike anything he ever wrote, and "The Two Witches" surpasses even that as far as originality.  The title of "The Witch of Coös" is fascinating.  Coös is the northernmost county of New Hampshire (Martin, 89).  This is more significant because New Hampshire is also the title of the volume, so this was certainly an intentional move on Frost’s part.  This brings up any number of references to Satan and the North.  In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the North Pole attracts evil and becomes a passage to Hell.  There are all sorts of fascinating comparisons between Satan and Santa, who lives in the North Pole.  Norse mythology believes that Hel, the place where those who do not die in combat go in the afterlife, has a huge fire in the middle of it, and the fewer good deeds one does in life, the further from the center one spends eternity.

        Even the structure is unusual.  Most of the poem is written in dramatic dialogue, but unlike the poems in North of Boston, s the lines of each character are written out in parts, as in a play.  Furthermore, the poem begins and ends with a few lines from the narrator, a silent wanderer who listens to the story of a mother and her son.  The frame adds another layer of unreliability to the poem, because the more people a story goes through, the less accurate it is.  This poem is written by Frost, then told by a narrator who repeats an old story that he hears from a mother and son, who argue over the details of the story while they tell it.  The narrator calls the mother and son, “Two old-believers,” which is taken to mean that they are pagans.  He also makes note of the fact that they live on a farm “behind the mountain.”  This small detail seems pointless, but it would not be poetry if it had no meaning.  The mountain is covering the house up, and the secrets that it possesses.  Secrets are another important aspect of Gothic literature, because they also deal with the unknown.  Humans thirst to discover and explain everything, and part of the attraction of this genre is that it supplies them with new mysteries to attempt to solve (Frost, 187).

        Straight up analysis of the poem is tedious, but there are many scenes that bear some examination.  The dynamic between the mother and son is established in their first lines.  He is quick to brag about her witch powers; he seems to relish the stranger/narrator’s company, making boasts to try to hold his interest.  The mother seems more trustworthy because she seems to think more about what she says rather than blurting things out.  Also, she is constantly correcting him, which leads the reader to believe that she is right and he is wrong.  In fact, the boy’s last line before the mother tells the main story is, “I was a baby: I don’t know where I was.”  Once again, another layer of unreliability is added to the story.  The mother herself hits up two major gothic themes in her first two passages, namely magic and death.  She poses the question, “Don’t that make you suspicious/ That there’s something the dead are keeping back?”  In typical Frostian fashion, she answers her question, “Yes, there’s something the dead are keeping back,” which does not really tell the reader anything at all.  However, unlike a lot of his poems in which Frost uses this tactic to frustrate and mislead the reader, in this case he is taking advantage of the gothic style of mystery, posing dark questions to attract the readers rather than play with them.  Questions of the afterlife cannot be answered, but that fact does not prevent human curiosity from attempting (Frost, 188).

        The poem moves on to the dead body in their attic.  People usually bury their dead for any number of reasons, ranging from being spared the unsanitary rot and decay of a corpse, to paying respect for the dead, to getting rid of the reminders of their own mortality.  Regardless of the reason, not burying or burning or somehow disposing of the dead is unnatural.  In some respects, this poem can be seen as a fable, and the moral of the story deals with the unnatural response of the corpse to its unnatural burial.  The son says, “Where it wants to get/ Is back into the cellar where it came from” (Frost, 188).

Another aspect of the gothic that Frost explores in this poem is the twisted love story.  Love stories in a gothic setting generally involve at least one character discontented with the relationship.  This also goes back to The Castle of Otranto, the original gothic novel, although one of the best examples is still Wuthering Heights.  The mother in "The Witch of Coös" begins her lengthy monologue by telling the stranger:

                            “The only fault my husband found with me---
                             I went to sleep before I went to bed,
                             Especially in the winter when the bed
                             Might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.
                             The night the bones came up the cellar stairs
                             Toffile had gone to bed alone and left me,
                             But left an open door to cool the room off
                             So as to sort of turn me out of it.

The frigidity of their sex life is glaringly obvious from that passage, even without the metaphoric references between the bed and the winter.  The woman does not feel wanted in the bedroom, claiming that Toffile purposely kept the room cold to keep her out.  There are several hints that she had an affair with the man whose skeleton was kept in the cellar, and by the end of the poem, the mother lets out the secret that Toffile killed the man, probably out of jealousy over the affair.  However, Frost never comes out and says that she cheated on her husband- he understands that part of the fun for the reader in a Gothic work is to try to figure out the mysteries for themselves using the clues that he provides (Frost, 189).

The first look the mother gets of the skeleton at the top of the cellar stairs is particularly nightmarish and shows Frost’s realized potential as a Gothic writer:

                              A moment he stood balancing with emotion,
                              And all but lost himself.  (A tongue of fire
                              Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth.
                              Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.)
                              Then he came at me with one hand outstretched,
                              The way he did in life once; but this time
                              I struck the hand off brittle on the floor . . .

The lines Frost includes in parentheses serve no literary purpose other than to frighten the reader.  This sort of pleasure in causing fear goes back to Horace Walpole and anyone who has ever delighted in telling a scary campfire story to little kids--it is purely for the author’s amusement, but the readers are also attracted to it.  The horrors of a fire-breathing, animated skeleton make the terrible sounds of a wake-up alarm a little more bearable.  Another aspect of Gothic literature that Frost draws on in this poem is the female hero.  Toffile does nothing while the witch confronts the skeleton and knocks its hand off.  Men are generally called on to confront dangers in literature and real life, because they are the physically stronger sex.  Gothic literature is different because many of the supernatural horrors cannot be battled with physical strength.  Rather, characters must rely on their wits and their courage, which can be found in women as well as men (Frost, 189-190).

        The whole poem also relies on the past, another aspect of the Gothic.  The skeletons are literally in the closet, or cellar at least, in this poem.  This theme plays on the emotion of guilt.  People have an unconscious fear that their actions of the past will come back to haunt them.  If one examines the actions of the skeleton in "The Witch of Coös," it does not really do much other than wander around, trying different doors.  They are obviously stronger than the skeleton as demonstrated when she destroys its hand with one hit.  Their fear is not based on the supernatural occurrence, but rather it is based on the wrath that they think the skeleton will inflict on them, because they think they deserve it (Frost, 189).  The telling of her story to the stranger is part of the confessional process, in order to redeem herself and assuage herself of her guilt, similar to the purpose of the old man's story-telling in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

        The second poem of "Two Witches" is "The Pauper Witch of Grafton."  This poem has some gothic parts, such as the line where the witch says, “Double trouble’s/ Always the witch’s motto anyway,” which is a reference to the witches of Macbeth.  However, the reader eventually realizes that she is not really a witch, nor is there anything really gothic about her.  Her real magic comes from her sexual power to control a man.  Thus, in this poem the Gothic is used as a guise to cover up true secrets rather than supernatural ones.  However, the two poems together are unique at this point in Frost’s career, and the pair of them together makes the poems stand out as something different and special (Frost, 192-194).

Conclusion

 A study of the Gothic in Robert Frost’s poetry is a study of the genre itself.  His unique approach to each poem allows him to stretch the limits of the genre and use more aspects of it than any other author that immediately comes to mind.  From everyday life to hidden, haunted homes, Frost weaves gothic elements into poems as he sees fit to enhance them.  At the same time he proves himself a Gothic poet, he shows this is just another area he can master.


Bibliography

Frost, Robert.  Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays.  New York: The Library of
America, 1995.

Martin, Malachi.  Hostage to the Devil.  San Francisco: Harper, 1976.

Shakespeare, William.  King Lear.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1994.

Watt, James.  Contesting the Gothic.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Pat O'Connor
Frost's Diety

        In his play The Masque of Reason, Robert Frost continues the story of Job a thousand years after the original took place.  Frost takes on a rather large task of characterizing the Judeo-Christian God.  Though his motivations for the portrayal are not totally clear (whether it is a political commentary, his actual views on God, or something else entirely one cannot be sure,) he drew a rather unique picture of the famous deity.  The play is rich with stage directions and comments by Job and his wife that paint an almost comical picture of God, yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of the dialogue is the actual words that God speaks.  These words reveal much more about what Frost was trying to convey, and they do so in a more subtle way.  Through careful craftsmanship of syntax and vocabulary, tone, and the actual content of what God says, Frost portrays God as a fallible being who resembles a human much more than a figure to be worshipped.

        The language used by God throughout the work is not elevated at all.   Normally when one encounters a being with any amount of superhuman powers in a work of literature, its language is elevated above the human characters in some sort of poetic form whether it be rhyme or another poetic device.  One example of this is the rhymed speech of the witches in Macbeth.  Frost does nothing to elevate the language of God in the masque.  His vocabulary is common and even somewhat “folksy” at times.  Some examples of this common speech include God’s second piece of dialogue, when he replies to Job, “Yes, by and by” (373), or later in the same piece of dialogue he is talking about the trials he put Job through and adds nonchalantly, “And it came out all right”(374).  The rest of God’s speech is in no way differentiated from the speech of Job or his wife by vocabulary or syntax.  Also, there are ten instances in the relatively short masque where God asks questions of Job or his wife.  Frost’s creation of a God so frequently using interrogative language when dealing with humans (to gain information, not to give them a point for self-reflection) shows an inherent lack of knowledge and authority that one might expect from a lesser being than the omnipotent Judeo-Christian God.

        Frost also carefully crafts the tone that emits from God’s speech in order to contribute further to the diminishment of God as a supreme being.  God’s speech shows that he feels compelled to explain to Job that he tortured him.  God even says, “I’ve had you on my mind a thousand years/To thank you someday for the way you helped me…Too long I’ve owed you this apology” (374).  A superior God would not feel such a compelling need to explain himself to someone who is supposed to worship him.  Also, the tone of God’s speech suggests that he and Job are equals.  At one point God mentions to Job’s wife, “As for the earth, we [himself and Satan] groped that out together,/Much as your husband Job and I together found out the discipline man needed most…” (379). Towards the beginning of the masque, God tells Job “You changed all that.  You set me free to reign./You are the emancipator of your God,” (374).  The tone of these statements suggests that God is on an equal footing with Job.  Also, the overall tone of the piece is affected by the fact that Job and his wife have the last few lines of dialogue in the work, and God has nothing sufficiently important to say in order to end the discussion.  God seems to have had no control over the dialogue, which furthers the reader’s impression of a less-than-impressive supreme being.

        The most obvious clues that Frost gives the reader from God’s mouth about his lack of supremacy come from the contents of his speech that reveal faults.  One of the most prominent faults is vanity.  When Job’s wife mentions the fact that he looks just like Blake’s picture, he replies, “The best, I’m told, I ever have had taken” (375).  His vanity reaches beyond his appearance when he tells Job the main and simple reason he made Job suffer.  God says, “I was just showing off to the devil, Job…The tempter comes to me and I am tempted./ I’d had about enough of his derision/ Of what I valued most in human nature”(383).  He could not stand the devil critiquing his ways and he plainly admits that he made Job suffer to essentially win a contest.  His vanity and ego shine through these words.  God reveals another human characteristic and what some call a weakness.  He feels desire towards Job’s wife.  At one point he says simply, “She’s beautiful” (377).  Later, he adds, “I’m charmed with her”(378).  The Judeo-Christian God is not normally known for being smitten with humans.  Frost also has God say some things that make him out to lack the power or knowledge that are part of the composition of a traditional deity.  Job’s wife speaks of a witch that was burned at the stake and God replies, “That is not/Of record in my Note Book” (375).  Of course, this statement might be interpreted as God’s way of making fun of Job’s wife, but her subsequent reply followed by God’s frank admission that she has asked him a question he cannot answer leads one to believe that it is very possible he does keep a notebook to record history.  The Judeo-Christian God is normally all–knowing and even the joke of needing a notebook to record history (much less the possibility of seriousness) makes God look somewhat ridiculous in this masque.

        One might argue that the similar speech patterns and God’s way of speaking to Job and his wife as if they are equals is less Frost’s way of diminishing God and more his way of raising up Job.  If one also takes into account God’s desire, vanity, and forgetfulness along with his lowered vocabulary and tone, that case would be difficult to defend.  It is true that God praises Job and raises him up to be a saint in the masque, yet a saint is still a human being, and even if God put himself on the same level as a saint, it is still a much lower level than that of the traditional idea of the Lord God.  Frost used almost every tool at his disposal, both the obvious ones such as breaking stage props and Job exclaiming “’Twas human of you” (383), and the subtle and clever ones such as using nearly every aspect of God’s speech to show him as fallible and incredibly human.  Frost’s motivations are not immediately clear, but one can guess that he felt no fear in portraying God in this diminished fashion because the effort was so complete.

        The main reason that Frost would not feel fear in describing God in this way is that his purpose had nothing to do with portraying his personal vision of God.  The tone of the play is extremely comical and exaggerated.  Frost made it clear through this exaggeration that the image of God in the Masque of Reason is not to be taken seriously.  Instead, he is poking fun at the human tendency to define what God is when they only know human characteristics.  Job and his wife exclaim that God looks just like the picture by Blake showing that the Deity is exactly what they had defined him to be.  Frost vividly creates a fallible and human image of God, and then makes him ridiculous in order to show what happens when people try to define God in his being, actions, and intentions.  Frost wanted to show that defining God is a fallacy because human beings do not have the ability to think in terms of things that don’t exist on the human level.



Pat O'Connor
To E.F. and Frost's God

Introduction.

        Robert Frost published his sixth volume of poetry, A Further Range, in 1936.  He prefaced the volume with a dedication to his wife Elinor that explained the title for the volume, or at least so it seemed:  “To E.F for what it may mean to her that beyond the White Mountains were the Green; beyond both were the Rockies, the Sierras, and, in thought, the Andes and the Himalayas—range beyond range even into the realm of government and religion.”  Dedicating his volumes of poetry to his wife was nothing new for Frost.  He dedicated the preceding volumes of A Boy’s Will, North of Boston, A Mountain Interval, and West Running Brook to her as well.  The dedication for A Further Range poses some interesting issues because he addresses the dedication to his wife, who was an extremely influential and important person in his life, and at the same time, he would have been acutely aware that anyone reading the volume would read the dedication before reading the poetry.  This turned out to be the case because many of the critics who wrote reviews on the volume mentioned the dedication, particularly when Frost said that he was delving “into the realm of government and religion” (Frost, 977).

        If one takes the dedication literally, it seems that like the further ranges of mountains he describes, he is going to explore things in politics and religion that he has yet to explore in previous volumes of poetry.  This interpretation seems to be correct at least for government.  Frost took some of his most vehement criticism ever for this book of poetry because of his overt political ideas in poems like “Build Soil” or “To a Thinker.”  Never before had his poetry possessed such an obvious political agenda, and left-leaning critics like Newton Arvin, R.P. Blackmur, and Horace Gregory assailed Frost’s treatment of politics (Wagner, 113-149). Never once, however, did any critic comment on Frost’s treatment of religion in this volume.  Two of Frost’s most famous biographers, Lawrance Thompson and Jay Parini, spent a great deal of time discussing Frost’s politics and the newly overt way he decided to explicate these ideas in A Further Range.  Neither one of them, however, said anything about whether Frost had treated religion any differently in this volume of poetry than in his previous books.

        Religion is a major theme in this volume, and the critics, who had obviously seen the dedication and even mentioned it in their reviews in many cases, never addressed the issue of a further range in religion—only politics.  The biographers mentioned poems like “Design” to help explain Frost’s views on religion, coupled with poems from other volumes, but they never speak on whether or not Frost had truly explored new religious territory in this volume.  This fact leads one to question whether Frost was telling the truth when he said in the dedication that he was exploring further realms in religion.  Another possibility is that his definition of range was different for religion than government, and if this is the case, one must wonder what exactly he meant by a further range in religion.  Frost was known for choosing his words and format of his volumes very carefully and deliberately.  He also knew that all of his readers, and critics, and especially his wife, would read the dedication before the volume, so there is little doubt that he had a purpose, or even multiple ones for putting this particular dedication at the beginning of A Further Range.  If the meaning of a further range of politics is fairly clear, and the meaning behind a further range of religion is less obvious, along with the fact that Frost would have been very aware of who would see the dedication, one must ultimately wonder what his purpose was in telling his wife and readers about this emphasis on religion.

Frost—The Bard

        One of the reasons the dedication to A Further Range is puzzling is that Frost himself was not always accurate or obvious about what he said, wrote, or presented.  It is important to note that one cannot take the dedication at face value and must suspect its truthfulness even before reading the poetry inside the volume.  To have and be aware of this suspicion is to begin to understand the things that might have motivated Frost to write the dedication the way he did.  The word “range” could be interpreted in a number of different ways (these specific ways will be explored later); he could have been totally misleading people about having any special emphasis on religion; or he could also have been drawing attention to religion in the poems to mislead or confuse readers about his true feelings regarding God.  His previous writings and speeches show examples of where he had been sly and purposefully vague or misleading to his audience regarding his work and personal beliefs.

        The most obvious examples of where Frost likes to play with the meaning of words (as he may have done with “range” in the dedication) can be found in his poetry.  One can pick up virtually any book of his poetry and find examples of word play and double-meanings within words.  One example of this can be found in A Boy’s Will with the poem “Revelation”(Frost, 27).  The title of the poem can mean two things.  It can  refer to the section in the bible that deals with the end of the world because of the last stanza of the poem, which says, “But so with all, from babes that play/ At hide-and-seek to God afar, / So all who hide too well away/ Must speak and tell us where they are.” Here Frost mentions how even God must eventually tell us exactly what he means with no ambiguity. The title “Revelation” can be referring to the end of the world as the time when God will tell us where he is.  “Revelation” can mean that Frost or the speaker of the poem has had a revelation regarding how he guards oneself from expressing his true thoughts and feelings, and that happiness will only be achieved if he tells people exactly who he is and what he thinks.   This is one of many possible examples that show Frost’s potential for word-play with “range” in the dedication.

        Another thing Frost might have done with the dedication is to purposefully put an emphasis on religion where little to none truly existed in the poetry in order to make people focus more closely on the works.  Frost liked to appeal to the masses on one level and give them an opportunity to find meaning easily in his poems, and at the same time, he liked to give opportunity to people who truly read the poetry closely to find much more rich and complex meaning. A classic example of where he did this exact thing is in A Boy’s Will.  When he first published this volume in 1913, he included a table of contents that had one-sentence or one-phrase explanations of each of the poems in the book.  The sentences relayed a rather simple, obvious meaning that could be found in each poem.  Anyone not reading the poetry closely would accept these one-sentence glosses of meaning as the whole meaning of the poem.  A person who would actually take the time to read the poetry closely would find a much more complex meaning. A specific example of this is the poem “Mowing,” whose gloss states, “Mowing He takes up life simply with the small tasks” (969). One could read the poem and believe whole-heartedly in the meaning stated in the gloss because it seems on the surface about a man finding fulfillment in simple work.  One could also read the poem more closely and see that the poem showed a man who was in a state of bliss because of his harmony with nature.  The man’s love and respect for nature as he is outside working in the sun is evident when he says, “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak/ To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows”(26).  Most if not all of the poems in A Boy’s Will could be read by going way beyond the gloss to find more meaning in the poem.  Because of this history of Frost’s play with his readers, it is plausible that the dedication in A Further Range serves merely as a device to draw attention to religion in hopes that people will read his poems looking for an emphasis on religion where one may or may not be found.

        A third reason to question what Frost could mean with this dedication is that he frequently liked to be evasive about his true feelings on religion.  Parini says the following regarding Frost’s views on his own religious ideas:

They [Frost and hid mother] quarreled frequently about his seeming “atheism,” although Frost consistently defended himself against the charge. He was not an atheist, he maintained, though he did subscribe to many of the views put forward by people who were.  At one point he referred to himself…as a ‘freethinker’…. Frost determined to go his own way, or seem to go his own way…” (Parini, 29).

Frost’s propensity to play with the meaning of words, to falsely narrow complex meaning, and to evade true presentations of his beliefs leads one to investigate the poetry inside the volume in order to figure out his ultimate motivations for the beautiful yet obscure dedication.

Range…Meaning What Exactly?

        Frost may have been playing with the  meaning of the word “range” in the dedication.  He talks about mountain ranges that are further away than the closest, and then ones further out than those, and he seems to be expressing a theme of pushing onto new territory.  To read it literally, one must assume that he means he is exploring ideas in the poetry of this volume that he had never really addressed before.  This meaning obviously holds true for government.  He had never made his laissez-faire attitudes so obvious or written poetry that was so blatantly political as “Build-Soil” and “To a Thinker,” among others.  This meaning is much harder to relate to the way he treats religion in the volume.  Therefore, one must examine the different things he could have meant when he included religion into the dedication as another way in which he was going to a further “range.”

        The first and most obvious thing he may have meant by talking about a further range of religion is the same meaning that applied to politics—exploring new territory of religion.  An exploration of the poetry in A Further Range shows that this is not the case, however, because all the major religious ideas in this volume can be found somewhere in his previously published volumes.  One major theme in A Further Range that exists previously in Frost’s poetry and his life is that of being against Darwinism and evolution.   Frost’s ideas regarding science and religion were an interesting mix.  He rejected pure creationism because it left no room for science and the human role in advancing the human race.  But he also felt strongly against evolutionists because they left no room for faith of any kind, which Frost believed to be important.  Both biographers, Parini and Thompson, tell of how Frost looked to creative thinkers such as Henri Bergson and William James who developed theories that allowed room for belief in science along with a strong religious faith.  Frost’s contempt for pure Darwinians is plainly evident throughout his life.  In a letter to Sidney Cox In May of 1926, Frost stated, “You should have heard me standing off a club of scientists the other night on the subject of evolution.  I’m not a good debater but they are so sure of themselves in evolution that they haven’t taken the trouble to think out their position” (Thompson, 296).  His poem “At Woodward’s Garden” in A Further Range blatantly attacks Darwin’s evolutionary theories.  He describes a boy giving two monkeys a lens, and shows how the monkeys would never be able to understand how to use the lens.  Frost then sarcastically seems to take the side of the monkeys by having them say, “It’s knowing what to do with things that counts” (Frost, 256), when they had only tried to bite the lens, take it apart, and then stuff it in their bedding.  Here, Frost shows the large difference between monkeys and humans using a technological invention as an example, and then sarcastically makes fun of people who believe whole-heartedly in evolution.  Such anti-Darwinian sentiment was not new to Frost in this volume.  In West-Running Brook, the poem “Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight,” also attacks evolution in the second and third stanzas:

                            There was one time and only the one
                            When dust really took in the sun;
                            And from that one intake of fire
                            All Creatures still warmly suspire

                            And if men have watched a long time
                            And never seen sun-smitten slime
                            Again come to life and crawl off,
                            We must not be too ready to scoff (244).

Frost plainly warns people about taking evolution too seriously, and remarks later in the poem that faith is an integral part of the spark of life.

        Another religious theme found in A Further Range is Frost’s belief that humans make their own choices and fate, and that very little in life or nature is controlled by God or even influenced by him to any great degree.  This theme is perhaps one of the most common religious themes both in this volume and throughout Frost’s published poetry up to this time.  The poem “Clear and Colder” in A Further Range addresses this issue when the poem ends “Human beings love-it—love it. / Gods above are not above it” (493).  The pronoun “it” refers, at least on a literal level, to changes in weather brought on by the wind.  With the end of this poem, Frost seems to say that even God has no power over the weather and that nature operates without His control.  The theme regarding general lack of involvement by God in worldly affairs can be found even in some of Frost’s earliest published poetry in A Boy’s Will.  The poem “Trial by Existence” addresses this same theme on a more human level.  The poem reveals Frost’s way of explaining pain in the world.  The poem describes how souls come to heaven after death on earth only to ask to return.  God explains that the only way to return is without any memory of him or paradise; they must endure life’s struggles without knowledge of redemption.  The souls in the poem happily agree to this pact in order to return to earth to test the mettle of their souls against earthly suffering.  This relates in two ways to the above theory about God’s lack of involvement on earth.  First, it is the person’s choice to come to earth without any involvement from God, as a few of the lines in the last stanza makes abundantly clear:
                                ‘Tis of the essence of life here,
                                  Though we choose greatly, still to lack
                                The lasting memory at all clear,
                                   That life has for us on the wrack
                                Nothing but what we somehow chose (28);

And second, the poem portrays the trials and tribulations of mortal life as things created by humans and God as a figure who does nothing to improve them or make them worse.

        A discussion of this recurring theme would not be complete without mentioning one of Frost’s most famous poems in A Further Range, yet also one of his most puzzling.    “Design” was finally published in this volume after many years of revision.  The first version was titled “In White” and appeared in a letter to Susan Ward dated January 5th, 1912.  Then he revised the poem, and it was first printed as “Design” in American Poetry 1922, a Miscellany.  Finally Frost took full responsibility for it and published it in a volume in 1936 (Porier, 245).  Thompson, Parini, and even Poirier (who wrote a book analyzing Frost’s poetry) all spend a great deal of time analyzing “Design” and its history.  Although the first version of the poem and its changes are fascinating, the final draft as published in A Further Range is more relevant to the issue of how religion is treated in this volume.  All three of the previous authors offer their own interpretation of the poem, and all of them come to the same general conclusion that the poem is about how God holds no fixed design for nature, and that nature operates without influence from Him.  The poem is difficult because of the syntax of the last few lines:

                            What brought the kindred spider to that height?
                           Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
                           What but design of darkness to appall?—
                           If design govern in a thing so small (Frost, 275).

Parini offers the interpretation that Frost is simply stating the aforementioned theme in “three of Frost’s most vivid concluding lines” (Parini, 112).  Poirier acknowledges that the last two lines are grammatically complex, but they only serve to confirm the meaning of an uninvolved God in the poem (Poirier, 251).  The grammar is quite perplexing, and it is difficult to discern what exactly is the object of “appall”—design itself, design of darkness, or even the spider.  Despite this confusing grammar, the poem as a whole does seem to be reinforcing the idea of an observer God instead of an active participant type of deity because the tone of the last line seems to suggest that “design” does not govern in a thing so small.  The puzzling syntax of that poem does, however, exemplify the next religious theme found in A Further Range.

        This theme is the human inability to grasp the whole concept and truth of God.  “Design” deals directly with God’s design on earth (or lack of it), but it also deals indirectly with the issue of the man’s inability to comprehend God because the grammar at the end of the poem makes it almost impossible to discern.  Frost used a clever poetic device of writing a poem about religion and then making it impossible to wholly ascertain its meaning, thereby showing the impossibility of gaining a whole understanding of things that exist in heaven instead of earth.  Frost deals with this issue more directly in some of the other poems in A Further Range.  In “The Strong Are Saying Nothing,” the last two lines state plainly, “There may be little or much beyond the grave, / But the strong say nothing until they see” (Frost, 272).  Here, Frost suggests that it is impossible to know what happens after one dies, and the most courageous men will accept that fact and not spend too much time philosophizing on what exists out there until they are done on earth.  This theme is also present in poetry Frost had published in previous volumes.
One example is the poem “The Star-Splitter” in New Hampshire.  The poem literally tells the story of two men looking at the stars with a telescope, and then the last stanza seems to ask questions that go beyond astronomy:

                        We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
                         Do we know any better where we are,
                         And how it stands between the night tonight
                         And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
                         How different from the way it ever stood? (168)

Here, the two men ask questions about their current location that also apply to a broader theme of religion.  They express the impossibility of being able to locate their own place in the universe and the heavens.  The only way truly to know this information would be to have a whole understanding of what powers exist beyond humans and earth.  Although it is less direct than in “The Strong Are Saying Nothing,” the same theme of humans lacking the ability to comprehend things beyond the earthly realm controls this poem.

        Frost also had a darker side when it came to religion, and this side also presented itself in A Further Range.  When talking about Frost’s childhood, Thompson mentioned one of the fundamental influences that shaped Frost’s early views on religion:

“Robbie’s mother tried to make the boy understand that earthly obedience was inseparable from obedience to heavenly dictates; that all forms of earthly naughtiness were seen by the Heavenly Father, who would one day call each individual to account and would mete out punishment…but in Robbie’s childhood experiences his cumulative fear of a distant and mysteriously punishing Heavenly Father became inseparable from his first-hand knowledge and fear of his earthly father, whose punishments were so inconsistent and severe” (23).

This influence on Frost’s childhood did manifest itself later in his life with the death of his first child in 1900.  Thompson relates that when Frost’s child died of cholera, “Frantically, he [Frost] kept saying that this was God’s just punishment of him” (258).  One of the poems in A Further Range gives a glimpse of this punishing type of God.  In In the last stanza of “The Vindictives,” the meek and conquered people through time’s various empires give the following statement regarding their conquerors:

                                “ ‘The best way to hate is the worst.
                                ‘Tis to find what the hated need,
                                Never mind of what actual worth,
                                And wipe that out of the earth.
                                Let them die of unsatisfied greed,
                                Of unsatisfied love of display,
                                Of unsatisfied love of the high,
                                Unvulgar, unsoiled, and ideal.
                                Let their trappings be taken away.
                                Let them suffer starvation and die
                                Of being brought down to the real’” (Frost, 286)

Though it is not God himself who is acting out punishment, Frost still reveals his belief in a punisher God through the form of the poem.  The people who are saying the curse are called “meek.”  It is impossible that Frost was unfamiliar with Christian doctrine that the meek shall inherit the earth.  The curse itself is then in the form of “Let them…” as if these things such as death and starvation will happen to the conquerors because of some higher power.  Using God’s chosen people to invoke a chant asking for a higher power, Frost strongly suggests a view of God as punisher.  This same theme surfaces even more starkly in West-Running Brook.  The poem “Once by the Pacific” gives this view of God:

                                “It looked as if a night of dark intent
                                Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
                                Someone had better be prepared for rage.
                                There would be more than ocean-water broken
                                Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken” (229).

This violence by God is not a normal thing for Frost poetry, yet it does exist in each of these previously mentioned volumes.  Frost had a history of believing in God as something that would punish humans for their wrong-doing, and he found it to be a relevant poetic theme as well.

        Though there are many more religious poems in A Further Range, there is only one last major theme that can be found in that volume and has yet to be explored.  Frost never liked to align himself with any specific type of religion, and though there were multiple reasons for this, one reason was that he largely subscribed to William James’ ideas about faith.  Thompson and Parini both mention one such idea by James that was very appealing to Frost.  Thompson specifically mentions an excerpt from one of James’ collection of lectures:

“…an idea is ‘true’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives.  That it is good, for as much as it profits, you will gladly admit.  If what we do by its aid is good, you will allow the idea itself to be good in so far forth, for we are the better for possessing it…. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons” (Thompson, 386).

This last theme of any belief that benefits you as a person is a good or “true” belief can be found in the poem “The Bearer of Evil Tidings” in A Further Range.  The poem tells the story of a messenger on a quest to tell the king Belshazzar that his kingdom was about to be overthrown.  The messenger stopped in the Himalayas and was told about the local religion by a girl his age.  The religion revolved around a pagan legend of a princess who was impregnated by a God while on her way to marry a Persian Prince and who decided to stay in the mountains rather than try to explain her predicament to the prince.  The messenger liked the religion so much he decided to stay and not bother to carry on his message.  Frost shows his belief that faith does not necessarily have to be directed at the Judeo-Christian God, but that faith of almost any type (in this case a pagan one) that is beneficial to helping the believers live their lives is a good and healthy thing.  This theme is also present in previous volumes, especially A Boy’s Will.  One poem in this volume, “Pan with Us,” gives a portrayal of the pagan god Pan and his return to civilization from the woods.  Pan remarks that people don’t react to his pipes the way they once had.  The last stanza then states:
                                They were pipes of pagan mirth,
                                And the world had found new terms of worth.
                                He laid him down on the sun-burned earth
                                     And raveled a flower and looked away—
                                     Play? Play?—What should he play? (32)

Frost never makes a judgment as to whether believing in Pan is a good or bad thing, only that people had decided to believe in other things instead of Pan.  Frost puts it in terms of worth, which suggests that Pan no longer fulfilled the needs of the people and they decided to put their faith in something else.  Clearly, Frost makes no judgment against paganism in either of these poems; he only seems to suggest as James did that the object of belief is not important, only the way the belief helps that person go through life.

        These five themes of anti-Darwinism, an uninvolved God in earthly affairs, human’s inability to wholly conceive the notion of God, God as a punisher, and belief being more important than God or any object of belief are major religious ideas that Frost addresses in A Further Range.  The fact that all of these major themes have been addressed before in his published volumes shows that Frost could not have meant that he was going into new thematic territory when he wrote in the dedication that he was going to a further range of religion. There are other things he may have meant by the word “range” that are less obvious than the first possible meaning described here.

        An alternative use of the word “range” in the dedication would be to mean that he was going into a new realm of religion with regards to the form or the way he addresses religion in his poems.  One of the most plausible examples of this in A Further Range is the poem “Not All There.”  It is rare that Frost had ever used himself in the first person to talk directly about faith and how it applied to him personally.  The poem is short and says the following:

                                 I turned to speak to God
                                 About the world’s despair;
                                 But to make matters worse
                                 I found God wasn’t there

                                 God turned to speak to me
                                 (Don’t anybody laugh)
                                 God found I wasn’t there—
                                 At least not over half. (282)

This poem marks the first time he had ever addressed faith on such a personal level.  He does not use other characters; he does not speak “as if”; nor does he merely describe an episode he is observing as he does in “Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight,” which is perhaps the next most personal poem in regards to form.  In “Not All there,” Frost actually puts himself forth as having (or at least attempting to have) communication with God, and consequently he makes a very powerful statement for some of the themes already established in the volume.  In the first stanza, he mentions that God wasn’t there when he went to ask him a question.  He never says that God doesn’t exist; only that God wasn’t there when he turned to speak to him.  This reinforces the theme that humans cannot adequately grasp the idea of God because Frost did not know where or how to find God when he needed to talk to him.    The second stanza has God turning to speak to Frost but then not finding him.  This inability of God to be able to talk to Frost supports the theme of a God who does not involve himself with earthly affairs because a God would have the power to make someone listen to him, yet God does not force Frost to listen when he isn’t truly looking for the word of God.  This poem is one example in which Frost may have meant that he was going to a further range in form.  However, he probably had a broader meaning for “range” than can be explained by just one poem because the dedication encompassed the volume.

        The third meaning for “range” that Frost could have possibly employed is the idea that a range is a wide and open area.  This meaning seems to be the most likely definition of what he meant when he spoke about going further with religion.  As it has been shown already, none of the themes in A Further Range is original to this volume.  An important thing to note, though, is that this is the only place where all of them exist in one volume.  Out of the thirty total poems in the volume,  A Boy’s Will has six poems that directly deal with religious themes and four others that mention God or religion in some indirect way.  None of the poems deal with God as a punisher, and none of them addresses the theme of the importance of belief over the object of that belief.  North of Boston has virtually no poems that deal with religion, and A Mountain Interval has two, “Bond and Free” and “The Hillwife,” that briefly mention religious themes.  New Hampshire  has a few more, with four poems that deal directly in religious themes and three more that insinuate religion in passing or through description of supernatural phenomena (for example “Two Witches”).  Thematically, the religious poems in this volume seem mainly to focus on the issue that God is not involved in earthly affairs and humans can’t totally understand God.  Darwinism and freedom of faith is largely ignored.  The volume that comes the closest in form as  A Further Range is  West-Running Brook.  This volume deals with God in a much more direct way that is not found in the previous volumes.  “Once by the Pacific,” “Bereft,” and “Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight,” are the first poems with the exception of “A Trial by Existence,” to deal with the idea of God in such direct phrasing and ideas.  The religious poems in previous volumes were clearly religious but dealt with those themes on a very metaphorical level and very rarely even mentioned God directly.  West-Running Brook, though it may look similar to A Further Range in its form of exploring religion in a much more direct manner, does not have the breadth of themes that exists in the latter.

        A Further Range explores every general theme found in Frost’s previous volumes combined in the eleven poems that deal directly with religion and the seven additional poems that mention it in passing or allude to religion a little more indirectly.   Though the phrase “range beyond range” in the dedication would seem to be talking about breaking boundaries and going into new territory, he did not break any barriers the way he had done with politics in this volume.  There is no territory found in  A Further Range that cannot be found in one of his other volumes.  He did not decide to explore his religious beliefs to find new discoveries in this volume.  Frost seems to have been playing a little with the meaning of the word “range” in the dedication when he mentioned religion.  He truly did go into a further range of religion to the extent that he laid out a clear and wide expanse of religious themes all in one volume that surpassed the previous amount of thematic material ever discussed in a single book.  It seems as if Frost decided to put all of his ideas regarding religion into one place in order for all to see.

To E.F.

        Now that it has been established that Frost liked to play with the meaning of words, and that he had done so in the dedication for A Further Range, the question becomes, what was his purpose in writing this dedication?  Frost had dedicated each of his previous volumes to his wife, with the exception of New Hampshire, which he dedicated to “Vermont and Michigan.”  The only time before A Further Range that Frost had put anything down besides her name or initials was in Mountain Interval, where he mentioned some of the things they had experienced together and how these things may have influenced the volume.  In the dedication for A Further Range, on the other hand, he uses a tentative tone, “for what it may mean to her,” and he also writes about her in the third-person and not to her directly as he had always done before.  This new way that he decided to dedicate this volume to her is likely a large piece of the puzzle about his purpose for putting the dedication down in the first place.

        Neither Thompson nor Parini say anything specifically about what Frost may have been trying to achieve with this dedication.  They speak only about his politics and the way he went into new poetic territory with his politically charged poems in the volume.  Frost most likely had two main purposes in writing this dedication.  The first and more obvious one has to do with the critics and readers.  He knew that he was exploring politics in a way that he had not done before, and he probably wanted to warn the readers and the critics so that they may take his explorations more favorably if they were a little more prepared for it.  Also, he had never spent so much time on religion in a previous volume, nor had he ever put so much of his theories into one place.  It is likely that he again might have wanted to shield the readers and critics from too much of a shock about his new emphasis on religion in the volume.  His tactic did not entirely work, because Frost was attacked by a few critics for the political nature of these poems.   They most likely did not notice his wide range of religious themes because all of them had appeared at some point before and A West-Running Brook would have prepared them for the direct form that he used to talk about religion in A Further Range.

        His second purpose in writing this dedication must have had something to do with his wife since it was addressed to her.  Thompson and Parini both relate stories of Elinor being an atheist and chiding Robert for having religious beliefs.  In one particularly brutal episode between the couple, Thompson relates something that Elinor had said to Robert after the death of their child:

When she could finally bear to talk, she reproved Rob for saying that this was God’s punishment.  How could he, at a time like this, be so unreasoning and so self-centered as to wallow in thoughts of punishment for himself…How could he think there was any divine justice or any benevolent over-sight of human affairs.  There was no God, she said; there couldn’t be” (258).

The pain that Frost must have felt at his wife denouncing his religious beliefs and calling him selfish in the wake of his son’s death must have been more than he could bear.  Besides her chiding Robert about his religion, there is also evidence that he felt she misunderstood him and he desperately wanted her approval.  Another episode that Thompson relates predates the previous example.  Robert announced that he was going to go to Harvard, and though he was very excited, she never even turned around to acknowledge that he had said anything.  Thompson goes on to explain that Robert spent much of their married life trying to get closer with his wife and explain himself better to her so that she might understand him (232).  These two aspects of their marriage, her atheism and lack of understanding about his religious beliefs, along with the facts that her health was incredibly poor in 1936 and Frost was worried about her death (Thompson Vol. II, 409-422) seem to suggest that he wanted her to understand his religious beliefs, and therefore him as a man, before he lost her.  He was most likely not trying to push his religion onto her because of the passive nature of the dedication (both how it is written passively and addressed to her in the third-person instead of directly to her) and because of his already stated belief from James that faith is only a good thing if it helps the person in life.  I think he put all of his religious themes into one volum before she died.

Conclusion

        Though it is impossible to say for sure what Frost may have wanted to achieve with his beautiful dedication at the beginning of  A Further Range, his poetry and some biographical elements from his life give some very good clues about what he might have been hoping to gain.  For the critics and readers, he used the phrase “range beyond range” to warn them about the new and stark way he would be treating poetry in this volume so that they might react more favorably to it.  In a sense, he meant this type of new territory interpretation of “range” for religion as well.  He wanted to warn the readers about his strong emphasis on religion in this volume and the multitude of religious themes contained inside of it.  He didn’t actually display any new material or attitudes regarding religion the way he did with politics, and this forced one to look at what he meant exactly by “range.”  As it turned out, he played with the definition of the word “range” as he was prone to doing with almost anything he said.  The definition of a range as a wide-open space fits the way he treated religion in this volume because of the way he put all of his widely varying religious themes in their most direct form.

        As for what he was trying to say to his wife, Frost most likely wanted her to know everything that he believed in religiously.  He used the dedication as a device to tell her that A Further Range contains the vast space of religious thought that made him up as a person.  He probably felt the need to express himself in this way to her at this time in their lives because her health was obviously failing and their time together was limited.  Frost made one last attempt in the dedication to this volume to get approval from Elinor and express a large part of himself to her that seemed to have remained misunderstood throughout their marriage.

                                                    Bibliography

1. Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays. New York: Literary
 Classics of the United States Inc., 1995.

2. Wagner, Linda W., ed. Robert Frost: The Critical Reception. Michigan State
 University: Burt Franklin & Co., Inc.

3. Thompson, Lawrance. Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915. New York: Holt,
 Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

4. Thompson, Lawrance. Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph 1915-1938. New York:
 Holt, Rinhart, and Winston, 1970.

5. Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Stanford: Stanford University
 Press, 1977.

6. Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Martin Lewis-Gonzalez
Death in the Life of Robert Frost and His Poetry

        In his essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Robert Frost defines poetry as a momentary stay against confusion.  Confusion for Frost means disorder and chaos, but in many ways ultimately means death.  This is because for Frost, death is the ultimate loss of control.  It is a marked boundary behind which conscious influence ends.  Thus death marked the ultimate unknown for Frost.  Though he struggled to get his mind around the idea of death for his whole life, he was never able to wholly come to an acceptable conclusion.  Neither religion, philosophy nor his exploration of death through poetry gave Frost an acceptable answer to its presence or purpose.

        Death was a significant factor for much of his life.  It was a shadow that pursued him from an early age and on through until the end of his days. Both the impending notion of his own death, and the rash of deaths within the Frost family throughout his life, provided a constant reminder of its presence.  It was for him one of the great enigmas of mortal existence that could only truly be solved at the end of one’s time, when the proof of whatever came after was finally accessible.  In many ways Frost agreed with a poet of his youth, Edward Roland Sill, who, in his poem “A Morning Thought,” called earth “a blessed place except for the destroyer Death.”

        Death, itself, only occasionally breeched the surface of Robert Frost’s poetry, mostly because it was the one thing he could never quite figure out in his head.  The constant terror caused by the overwhelming immensity of its presence throughout his life often barred him from clearly exploring the topic.  His refusal to wholly accept Christian doctrine and the promise of an afterlife only compounded his predicament.

        The fragmented appearance of death in his poetry then is an example of its importance.  This is because for Frost the most personal and important aspects of life are those which he tread around most carefully in his poetry.  A meticulous reader can identify these topics through the cryptic manner in which he addresses them.  The more open and honest Frost becomes about himself in his poetry the more he obscures what he is saying.  Though Frost has a compulsion to be open with his audience, his defensive nature causes an immediate withdrawal from any topic which would leave him vulnerable.  Thus, when he deals with these topics, namely those which are the most personal and least comfortable, he becomes very difficult to decipher.  Few of these topics are as hesitantly and complexly dealt with in his poetry as the looming presence of death.

        Thus, in order to achieve a more complete understanding of Frost’s dealing with death, a reader must analyze his life as well as his poetry.  Frost was a man who both feared and never understood death during his lifetime.  Though his poetry on the subject does explore some of the reaches to which his troubled mind strayed, much of it cannot be understood without a grasp of how death presented itself throughout his life.  Through an analysis of his works concerning death, as as well the lifetime experiences with the same, a reader can achieve a more complete understanding of his struggle.

        Robert Frost’s first experiences with death can be traced back to his early childhood.  His father had been suffering from consumption for most of young Frost’s life, and as a consequence he was forced to watch his father steadily decline in health over the years.  The only remedy his father found acceptable was the application of whisky and vigorous exercise in equal measures.  One of Frost’s earliest memories dealt with his father’s “treatment” of the disease.  Due to their proximity to the ocean in San Francisco his father would go out for long ocean swims as a way of combating his illness.  During these outings Frost was left alone on the shore to watch his father’s coat, towel and whiskey bottle.  He would watch him wade into the Bay to begin his long swim through cold water to an off-shore bell buoy.  Due to the increasing severity of his father’s illness and the vast ocean which his father would disappear into, Frost suffered ever increasing anxiety from the moment his father was out of view until he reached the shore once more.  The fear of losing his father was his first encounter with the notion that man is only on earth for so long.  This idea would be reinforced after the death of his father.

        It was in May of 1885 that Frost senior was finally overcome by his illness.  Shortly before his death he summoned his son to his bed.  Thompson, Frost’s biographer summarized the encounters as follows: “The boy went in and sat on the bed, too frightened to understand very much of the pale man’s whispered admonitions.  Afterward, he could remember only one stern command:  Never, never should Robbie hang around street corners in San Francisco after dark” (Book I page 44).  Despite the subtle humor of the encounter, the death of Frost’s father had a great influence on his view of death from then on.  Given the formidable presence, through the eye of a child, of his father as one of the great powers of the world, it was a severe blow to Frost’s sense of security to see his father succumb to illness.  The death of his father was grim "reality check" about the impermanence of the world around him.

        After his father’s funeral and a move to New England, Frost continued with his life, apparently unaffected by the presence of death until his encounter, at the age of 15, with the poetry of Edward Roland Sills in 1889.  What initially attracted him to Sills were references to his birth state of California.  As Frost continued to delve into his poetry, however, he was once again confronted with the idea of death.  Thompson notes that “although he naturally enjoyed all the California references, he seemed to be touched most deeply by Sill’s death poems.  Rob had often wondered, since the time of his own father’s death, how he himself would eventually confront his own end, how he could possibly find courage enough to overcome his fright” (Thompson, vol. I p. 123). One of these poems, mentioned earlier, was “A Morning Thought,” which dealt with Death as a looming presence in the world.  Another striking poem was “Truth at Last,” wherein Sills asks, “Does a man ever give up hope, I wonder,-/ Face the grim fact, seeing it clear as day?”  The encounter with Sill’s poetry, then, was a reawakening of the fears he had developed as a child when faced with his father’s sickness and death.

        Never truly supported by the religious faith of his mother, Frost instead took on the more practical and material viewpoint of his father.  Though this perspective gave Frost a concrete grip on daily matters, it gave no clear insight into some of the greater questions that life could pose.  Thus Frost was captivated by Sill’s poetry because it strove to investigate further than the simple answers that his mother’s faith presented.

        That same year Frost discovered the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  Thompson notes Frost’s experience with her poetry in that: “Although her terse, homely, gnomic, cryptic, witty qualities appealed very strongly to him, he was again fascinated to find that this new author was also troubled by many things concerning death” (Thompson, vol. I p. 124).  For Frost she was another poet who had been asking the same questions that he himself had been investigating since the death of his father.  During his reading of her work, he noticed that “the poems that cut deepest for him were those which expressed her doubt whether any reasons fashioned by the mind concerning life in heaven could compensate for the heart’s passionate and instinctive regrets over the transience of earthly bliss” (Thompson vol. I p. 124).  Though Thompson uses quite a mouthful to summarize Frost’s experience with Dickinson, he accurately pinpoints the very conflicts that had been plaguing Frost’s adolescence.

        In 1892 Frost graduated co-valedictorian of his high school (alongside Elinor White). During his address at graduation Frost worked through his stage fright to convey certain points to his audience.  Among these slipped a hesitant mention of death and sorrow in the world:   “There are men who go to death with such gray grandeur that we look back upon their past for some strange sorrow, such as that does not fall to others, even though we know sorrow to be the same through all time.”

        After being accepted to his college of choice, Frost attended Dartmouth, starting in the fall of 1892.  During his freshman year Frost discovered the elegy for a poet by Richard Hovey in the November issue of The Independent. The title was “Seaweed:  An Elegy on the Death of Thomas William Parsons.”  Frost was again struck by the presence of death in the artistic medium which he had chosen to pursue.  This time, however, the death was a real one, which Hovey had chosen to glorify in his Elegy.

    Though by itself this incident had no direct influence on Frost and his dealings with death, it did encourage him to use the poetic medium to investigate the matter in his own writings.  With the encouragement of Hovey’s elegy, and the poetic base of Sills and Dickinson, Frost ventured to create one of his first pieces of poetry concerning death.  In 1894 Frost wrote “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” which would later appear in his first volume of poetry A Boy’s Will

        Throughout this year Frost was also actively courting Elinor White, whose reserved acceptance of his attention was not enough to satisfy his adolescent advances.  In the fall of 1894 he put together two volumes of his first unofficial book of poetry “Twilight,” and presented one of them to Elinor as a symbol of their courtship.  Due to the socially rash way in which he did so (he appeared on her doorstep without prior arrangement), she coldly rejected him.  Her rejection struck him so severely that he despaired and thought her lost from him.

        This rejection marked the beginning of a self-pitying phase for Frost in which he contemplated suicide, and threatened to do so on a number of occasions.  His fouled encounter with Elinor spurred on the first of these instances.  Thompson notes of Frost, who was as yet mired in the immaturity of adolescence, decided that “suicide was the only fitting end for such a catastrophe.  If he could not kill himself by inflicting a mortal wound, he could at least throw his life away in a fashion which would make Elinor feel sorry throughout her life for what she had done” (Book I page 176).

        This last line exposes Frost’s true intent in threatening suicide.  He was far too frightened by the notion of death to actively pursue it, but he saw the threat of doing so as a means to get back at the woman who had wronged him.  Though Frost never really considered suicide as an option, he found the notion romantic enough to follow through with at least the first few steps.  On November 6 of 1894 Frost escapes southward and spends the next few days traveling down to the swamps of Virginia to do away with himself.  What he finds instead is a Tom Sawyer style adventure that lands him back in Dartmouth several days later.

        This childlike response to Elinor’s rebuff was repeated in March of 1895 when a similar confrontation ensued.  Elinor had attracted the attention of another man, and it a fit of jealousy Frost demanded that she make clear her intentions.  When she called him foolish for talking that way, he declared that she had really given him reason to kill himself this time, and stormed out of the room (Book I page 197).  The situation was nowhere as grim as he had made it out to be, however, and the two were married 8 months later in December of 1985.  Though Frost took several opportunities in his youth to create pseudo- catastrophes for himself, such as his trip to the Virginia swamps, he was spared the brunt of true tragedy until the turn of the century when two major occurrences would force him to reevaluate his life and his perception of death.

        In July 1900 Frost’s nearly four year old son, Elliot became seriously ill.  The family delayed in calling a doctor, feeling that the child’s condition would improve, but it only worsened.  When a doctor was finally called his response was: “This is cholera infantum.  It is too late now for me to do anything.  The child will be dead before morning.”  And indeed, Elliot died that night.  Thompson notes: “the shock of his death crushed his parents beneath a grief that seemed unbearable” (Thompson vol. I p. 267).  In a fit of self-pity and admonition, Frost blamed himself for his son’s death due to his failure to call the doctor in time.  For both parents it seemed that they had lost whatever meaning or purpose life might have had, and it was only with indifference that they could perform their daily obligations.

        As though this were not enough, the death of his son was followed up, several months later, by the death of his mother.  In the spring of 1899 a physician in Boston had diagnosed her with advanced cancer.  For the benefit of her health she was moved to a sanitarium in Penacook, easy traveling distance from Frost’s New Hampshire farm.  Despite this Frost did not make the trip to see his mother as often as he could have and the guilt of this would add to his anguish after her death.  In December of 1900 she finally died of her ailment, devoid of the presence of family or friends.

        This fairly disastrous year for Frost had a forcefully maturing effect.  Dragged through the realities of life by the death of his son and mother, Frost was forced to reanalyze his perception of the world.  One matter, however, was only exacerbated by the deaths in his family.  His fear of death did not benefit from the events of that year, for he only grew more weary of religion and less sure of what came after death.  The last time he talked to his mother she told him that “She was even aware that Rob had expressed his disbelief in any life after death, and she smiled confidently at him as she said that very soon she would know whether he was right or wrong on that point” (Thompson vol. I p. 267).

        Twelve years later, on April Fools day of 1913, Frost would publish his first work of Poetry, A Boy’s Will.  In this debut work Frost puts forth a number impressions that he wished would characterize him as an artist.  Despite the presence of a couple of poems concerning death, however, it is clear in this collection that he does not want to be referred to as a “death poet,” or even as a poet mildly concerned with the subject of death.  Despite this however, Frost had written all of these poems after the death of his mother and his first son.  The weight of these deaths, more than many must suffer in a lifetime, slip through the cracks of his well-constructed volume to expose, perhaps, more than he intended.

        In A Boy’s Will there are three distinct poems that deal with death: “Ghost House,” “The Trial by Existence,” and “My Butterfly: an Elegy.”  Each one deals with death in its own fashion and provides Frost’s own cryptic spin on it.  The first poem, “Ghost House,” is the second poem of the volume.  The title itself has two meanings, implying both the shade of a house that once stood and the ghosts who inhabit it.  The poem itself follows this duality in that it is seemingly a quaint anecdote about an abandoned house with its accompanying graveyard. Below the surface, however, this poem touches directly on the loss of his mother and son.

        He introduces the poem by speaking of the lonely house in which he dwells: “I dwell in a lonely house I know/ That vanished many a summer ago.”  This house, which no longer stands save for the cellar, is clearly the symbolic shelter which he shared with his mother and his four year old son Elliot.  With the death of them both, only months apart, the foundation of this protective refuge fell apart, and allowed for “The woods [to] come back to the mowing field.”  The forbidding wilderness, which returns after their deaths, takes over the house, the orchard, the footpath; and it even encroaches on the very markers which the indicate the graves of his mother and son.  The only sign left for Frost of a more comforting time are the two specters “Who share the unlit place with me.”  He continues:

                            They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,
                            Though two, close keeping, are lass and lad,-
                            With none among them that ever sings,
                            And yet, in view of how many things,
                            As sweet companions as might be had.

The lass and lad are his mother and son.  The proof lies not only in their gender but also in the location of their graves: “Those stones under the low-limbed tree/ Doubtless bear the names that the mosses mar.”  The location described in his poem is the very place where Frost buried his mother and son, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  The location was originally chosen for his father’s funeral when the family moved from San Francisco.  Throughout Frosts life it was marked by a low-limbed tree.

    His next poem, “The Trial by Existence,” is a remarkably spiritual work that must have been inspired by the biblical teachings and stories related to him, as a child, by his mother.  Though not dated, the poem was probably written after the death of Frost’s mother.  The reasoning for this is that she was the only remotely spiritual person in Frost immediate family and would have appreciated poems such as this one.  In writing it, Frost was appealing to his deceased mother not only in content but also in form.

        Full of religious references, Frost outlines, in his poem, the Christian story of a spirit’s choice to be earthbound for a lifetime.  Through this choice the spirit foregoes all knowledge of its choosing and suffers through the trials of existence.  Though Frost’s mother undoubtedly believed the story, he himself certainly had more than a few reservations.  His exploration of the topic, besides being designed for the benefit of his mother, also indicates his willingness to explore heaven as a possibility for the unknown after death.

        Ultimately, however, he rejects it in the final lines of the poem. “Thus are we wholly stripped of pride/ In the pain that has but one close,/ Bearing it crushed and mystified.”  On the surface this would seem to support the rest of the poem in that the earthbound spirits have no knowledge of their choice to come down and are thus “mystified.”  But the “one close” is also Frost the poet, who is crushed and mystified by the dark uncertainty of death.  Rather than being uplifted by the story he just told, he is drawn by his skepticism downward to be crushed by his fears.  He is not at all convinced that his mother is in heaven, and his doubts twist the end of the poem.

        The last poem of the volume is his first elegy, “My Butterfly,” which he wrote in 1894 at the age of 19.  The fact that it can be found in A Boy’s Will, some eighteen years later is a testament to his view of the poem.  The work itself is seemingly flippant, being addressed to a dead butterfly.  It is also ripe with a romantic naïveté of death, which would soon change with the loss of his mother and four year old son.  It marks a sharp contrast to the sorrow filled lines of the previous two poems.

        In the poem he is clearly entranced by the concept of death and loss, but lacks any experience besides the blurry images of his father’s last days. Instead, his notion of death is confined to the impressions acquired through the work of other authors.  His writing in the poem is such that he appears to be trying out the methods of his predecessors, much in the same manner that writers must before coming into their own individual style.  Though very carefully constructed and delightfully witty, it lacks the pain that one can feel in reading the previous two poems.

        His next volume, North of Boston, came out two years later, on the 15th of May 1915.  In this volume, the anxiety of death he kept controlled in his first volume worms its way out a little further.  Many of the poems of the volume have some strong reference to death, and of those a handful concentrate solely on that topic.  The most involved of these include: “The Mountain,” “Home Burial,” and “After Apple Picking.”  “The Death of a Hired Man” would seem like a ringer for dealing with death through poetry; however Frost uses it to steer his readers away from those poems which truly address that topic.  “The Death of a Hired Man” deals primarily with the social ramifications of the hired man’s position and the argument it causes between the couple.  His death at the end is merely a tool for reinforcing the subject of the couple’s discussion.

        “Home Burial,” on the other hand, has everything to do with Frost and death.  For a reader who is aware of his past, the title immediately unearths the death of his son.  Though superficially this poem deals with the conflict between husband and wife, caused by the loss of a child, the poem surfaces all manner of darkness for the author as well.  In the poem Frost becomes both the man and the woman.  The suffering caused by the loss of his son, Elliott, brought about reactions in Frost that he separates, in the poem, into male and female responses.  They are both his, however, and the sheer magnitude of his loss, reflected through the pain of his characters, is staggering.  He speaks both for his character and himself when he writes, “I’m cursed.  God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”  Frost throws enough falsities into the poem, though, to mask how much of his characters emotions are his, thus safeguarding himself from any responsibility.

        In “The Mountain” Frost removes himself considerably more than in other poems.  His approach to death, through metaphor, allows him the luxury of saying anything he wants since what is being represented is up to interpretation.  In this case the unreachable truth about what comes after death is seen through the ominous presence of a mountain.  But before the reader reaches that point, he must first take a glimpse of the mountain itself, and it proves to be a menacing one:

                            The mountain held the town in shadow.
                            I saw so much before I slept there once:
                            I noticed that I missed stars in the west,
                            Where its black body cut into the sky.

The mountain darkens the sky of the town i n much the same way that death had troubled Frost throughout his life.  But his view of death comes further  into play when his character speaks to the old man on the slopes.  The old man has never been to the summit but plans to visit sometime. It remains a place totally unknown yet the man has many theories about what is up there.  This place is death for Frost.  It could very well hold a healing spring, but it also could more likely hold barren rock, devoid of any reward or fulfillment.

         “After Apple Picking” is a fairly complex poem that parallels the end of a day's work apple picking with the peaceful death achieved after a long life.  Frost begins with a reference to heaven and continues throughout, suggesting a man who is tired of life and wishes, finally, to sleep.  “For I have had too much of apple picking: I am overtired,” he states.  Just as the man picking apples has done much that day, so too has the paralleled man done much in his life to make him weary.  And in the end neither man knows what sleep will bring.  This, of course, is right out of Frost’s mouth, since he himself constantly wondered just what lay on the other side of death.  “One can see what will trouble this sleep of mine, whatever it is,” he says.

        Mountain Interval then came sweeping in a year later, behind North of Boston, on the 27th of November 1916.  Though these volumes were written at approximately the same time as the previous two volumes, Frost seems to have arranged them such that he had worked through the pain of his losses by the time this volume was published.  In Mountain Interval Frost has finally achieve the objective view of death he was looking for.  Rather than having to deal with it on a personal level, he was able to view it from a distance, much like a scientist viewing a specimen through a microscope, and make a detached examination.  The funny thing about this perspective is that he seems to have been content to sum up his observations into a single poem.  Perhaps such a vantage point was not as interesting as it first appears.  His poem concerning death in Mountain Interval is “Out, out-“

        In “Out, out-” Frost can describe the gruesome death of a boy without feeling anything.  He is totally removed from the occurrence.  The description is nearly all factual, and even the pleas of the boy are passed on like bits of data.  In the end Frost even suggests that the family of the boy didn’t much care either:  “No more to build on there.  And since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”  The poem itself suggests two things about Frost. The first is that he was experimenting with emotional suppression as a means of coping with loss.  Perhaps by looking at death without emotion he could escape the fear that it instilled in him.  The second shows how self-centric he was.  Though the death of a close family member could ruin him for years, he did not much care for the suffering of others.  Four years later, when his sister was committed, he would comment to Untermeyer in a letter:  “And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.  As I get older I find it easier to lie awake nights over other people’s troubles.  But that’s as far as I got to date.  In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity.”

        His final volume, prior to a great number of the deaths in his family, was New Hampshire, published on the 3rd of November 1923.  It had been seven years since his last volume.  In this volume death continues to be of lesser importance after the exorcism Frost achieved in North of Boston.  It is still enough on his mind, however, to make an appearance.  “In The Witch of Coos,” Frost introduces the skeleton of a dead man that has run loose in the attic.  Rather flippantly, Frost explores the idea of death from a more humorous perspective.  Having delved into it, however, Frost seems content to leave alone.  Perhaps Frost didn’t find death very funny.

        And yet Frost does try the humor angle one more time in his poem “In a Disused Graveyard.”  Here Frost disguises his own fears of death by presenting them in a jovial manner.  The poem itself is, as the title suggests, about a graveyard that is no longer used.  Frost rolls his way nicely through the poem until he begins to suggest why the dead are no longer coming:

                            It would be easy to be clever
                            And tell the stones: Men hate to die
                            And have stopped dying forever.
                            I think they would believe the lie.

Having heard all this, his audience does not realize that Frost himself is dead serious when it comes to the very things he is joking about.  Frost was in fact terrified of dying, and if given the choice would probably opt out of having to do so and simply live forever.  By making it a joke he is able to be perfectly frank and still have no one take him seriously.

        “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” has often been discussed as a suicide poem.  Having been written well after Frost’s mock attempts at suicide, it is entirely possible.  And yet Frost thought far too much of himself to take his own life.  If he were the narrator, assuming the choice was between life and death, he simply would have kept riding down the road. And yet the suggestion is there.  His choice to head into the woods or go home falls on “The darkest evening of the year.”  Whether that means physically dark, emotionally dark or both is entirely up to interpretation.  Likewise the “lovely, dark, and deep woods” can easily suggest the easing of pain through suicide.  But the drive for Frost is not there.  If there is death in the poem, it is not his own.  Other scholars have suggested that the poem is instead about Frost's inner struggle between order/civilization/maleness and chaos/woods/femaleness.

        “For Once, Then, Something,” on the other hand, can be seen as a projection of death in his poetry.  The shinning surface of the well water is the curtain of death beyond which Frost cannot see.  Instead he views only a blurred reflection of the sky above him.  But then once, just once he sees something.  Was it heaven? He can’t tell, and the event does not repeat itself.  Here Frost is clearly trying to penetrate the barrier of death that will not allow him to see what is on the other side.  He at times comes close to a glimpse, but never truly gets a full view. Except for maybe that one time…

        Following the publication of New Hampshire there would be another dry spell in which would pass five years before the publication of his next volume of poetry.  Finally, on the 19th of November 1928, Frost published West Running Brook.  Having now been three decades separated from the haunting deaths of his mother and son, Frost could afford to feel less affected by the threatening notion of death.  Spared from its presence he moved his focus onto other topics.  And yet death still lingered in his mind enough to insert itself into one of the poems of this volume.

        His poem “Acquainted with the Night” describes both his experiences on the dark streets of London but also an objective view of his experiences with death.  He remarks:  "I have walked in rain—and back in rain./I have out walked the furthest city light./ I have looked down the saddest city lane."  In doing so he recounts his troublesome encounters with death and loss.  The whole notion that he has experienced emotional storms, morbid blackness and brooding sadness are all implied by the weary aspects of his nocturnal journey.  Beyond this poem however, Frost chooses not to broach the subject of death in the volume.

        Then, a year after the publication of West Running Brook, Frost suffered the beginning of what would become a second rash of deaths in his family.  This time Frost would suffer the loss of four more family members within a period of eleven years.
The first of these would occur toward the end of 1929.  His sister Jeanie had been institutionalized with dementia since 1920. Her condition had steadily grown worse throughout the years until she finally died of natural causes on the 7th of September, 1929 at the age of fifty-three.  Frost’s relationship with his sister had been rocky throughout their lives and it only grew worse with the growing acuteness of her insanity.  Three years after her death, Frost was documented as speaking with his friend John Bartlett about her.  Bartlett would later say of their conversation: “We all have our souls, and minds, to save.  And it seems a miracle that we do; not once but several times.  He [Frost] could look back and see his hanging by a thread.  His sister wasn’t able to save hers.  She built the protecting illusion around herself and went the road of dementia praecox.”

        Though the disintegration of his relationship with his sister took its toll on Frost, it did not affect him nearly as deeply as the infirment of his daughter Marjorie in 1934.  Her illness would  mark not only one of the darkest points in his life but also one of the best documented.  His letters reveal the depth of his grief and the extent to which her death affected his life.

        In March of 1934 Marjorie had given birth to a healthy baby girl but contracted puerperal fever shortly thereafter.  When informed that her affliction was often fatal, Frost dropped everything in order to attend to her during her illness. On the 20th of April, 1934, Frost wrote to Roy Elliot at Amherst about Marjorie’s condition:  “I wrote Stanley king (President of Amherst College) how ready I would be for anything if we come out all right, but how utterly against the world and unwilling to face it if fate fails us.” (Thompson vol. II p. 406)  Nine days later, on the 29th of April 1934, Frost wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer from Rochester.  Marjorie’s condition had become critical and Frost was expecting the worst.  He wrote: “We are going through the valley of the shadow of death with Marjorie we are afraid.  She had a baby in Billings, Montana, six weeks ago and most of the time since has hovered on the verge of death…You will probably see us home again alive whatever the outcome, but it will be months hence and changed for the worse for the rest of our days” (Thompson vol. II p. 407).

        Finally, seven weeks after the contraction of her fever and despite the best efforts of her doctor, she was dead, leaving behind a grief-stricken family.  On the 15th of May 1934 he wrote to Untermeyer:  “I told you by letter or telegram what was hanging over us.  So you know what to expect.  Well, the blow has fallen.  The noblest of us all is dead and has taken our hearts out of the world with her.  It was a terrible seven weeks’ fight- too indelibly terrible on the imagination.  No death in war could more than match it for suffering and heroic endurance” (Thompson vol. II p. 408).

        Two years after her death Frost published his next volume of work, A Further Range.  Though holding a strong particularly political bent in many of his poems of the volume, he still found time to poke at and investigate his old rival, death.  An interesting note, however, is that as Frost became older, he became less and less willing to obviously involve himself in these poems.  It is as though his increasing age increased his weariness of death.  He became less and less willing to discuss it openly, and instead relied more heavily on the passing remark or half-veiled jab.  Two examples of this in A Further Range are “Lost in Heaven” and “Desert Places.”

        In “Lost in Heaven” Frost’s narrator explores the stars through a break in the clouds.  This opportunity to locate himself in the universe fails however when there are not enough stars to do so.  In the end his narrator admits his incapacity to find some bearing and tries to accept his lost-ness: "Where, where in Heaven am I?  But don’t tell me!/Oh, opening clouds, opening on me wide./Let’s let my heavenly lostness overwhelm me."  This poem is a continuation of his struggle with religion.  Though he seeks the comfort it would give him concerning death, he is too cynical to accept it as doctrine.

        In “Desert Places,” Frost comes close to referencing the death of his daughter.  Though he regretted the loss of his sister, their relationship had degraded to the point that her death was not of great magnitude.  In the poem itself Frost describes the loneliness of the woods during a snowfall.  But, more personal to him, he describes the loneliness he feels after the loss of his daughter:

                            I am too absent-spirited to count;
                            The loneliness includes me unawares.
                            And Lonely as it is that loneliness
                            Will be more lonely ere it will be less-

He finishes the poem with a stanza that laughs at the dark unknowns of science, since for him they do not compare with the desert places within himself, created by the loss of loved ones:

                            They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
                            Between stars- on stars where no human race is.
                            I have it in me so much nearer home
                            To scare myself with my own desert places.

        A third poem in the volume comes the closest to mentioning his daughter’s death, though in a way he speaks of his mother and son as well.  In “A Leaf Treader” Frost tracks the life of the summer leaves as they gather light above him.  He mentions how “All summer long they were overhead, more lifted up than I.”  This correlates directly to his letter to Untermeyer in which he describes his daughter as “the noblest of us all,” hence above him.  And yet his daughter, like the leaves, falls in death before him.  He describes the emotions which the falling leaves instill in him, and it is easy to imagine them applied to his daughter:  "And when they came it seemed with a will to carry me with them to death./They spoke of the fugitive in my heart as if it were leaf to leaf./They tapped at my eyelids and touched my lips with an invitation to grief."  But after this poem Frost leaves well enough alone.  Having dealt with death through his poems, in his own personal and cryptic way, he moves on.  He does not bring death up again until the publication of A Witness Tree on the 23rd of April 1942.

        Two years before this, however, Frost was to suffer the most crippling of his losses with the death of his wife Elinor.  After years of suffering minor heart attacks, she finally succumbed to a major attack while climbing a flight of stairs.  She suffered seven additional attacks in the days following, each debilitating her further.  Finally, two days after her first attack, on the 20th of March 1938, she simply stopped breathing.

        Though her death was a relatively peaceful one, it had grave consequences for Frost’s psyche.  He was completely incapacitated by his wife’s death.  In a letter to his friend Untermeyer, he wrote:  “I had refused to be bowed down as much as she by other deaths.  But she has given me a death now that I can’t refuse to be bowed down by.  Here I am brought up short when in every way you can name I was still going full tilt.  I’m not behaving very well” (Thompson vol. II p. 501).

        In another letter, in response to a sympathy note from his friend DeVoto, he wrote: “I expect to have to go depths below depths in thinking before I catch myself and can say what I want to be while I last.  I shall be all right in public, but I can’t tell you how I am going to behave when I am alone.  She could always be present to govern my loneliness without making me feel less alone.  It is now running into more than a week longer than I was ever away from her since June 1895.  You can see how I might have doubts of myself.  I am going to work very hard in May and be on the go with people so as not to try myself solitary too soon…I’m afraid I deceived her a little in pretending for the sake of argument that I didn’t think the world as bad a place as she did.  My excuse was that I wanted to keep her a little happy for my own selfish pleasure.  It is as if for the sake of argument she had sacrificed her life to give me this terrible answer and really bring me down in sorrow.  She needn’t have.  I knew I never had a leg to stand on, and I should think that I had said so in print” (Thompson vol. II p. 502).

        A final letter, one that gives perspective on how Elinor’s death affected Frost’s poetry as well as his life, was sent to Mrs. Elliot, wife of Professor George Roy Elliot. He writes: “I am coming back to Amherst on Tuesday or Wednesday for some more of the finalities I haven’t yet learned to accept in flesh…I shall probably wander round among them (his friends) for a while till I can decide who I am now, and what I have to go on with.  Some of the old ambitions may come back to me in some form.  The danger will be that they may too openly concern her.  Pretty nearly every one of my poems will be found to be about her if rightly read.  But I must try to remember they were as much about her as she liked and permitted them to be.  Without ever saying a word she set limits I must continue to observe.  One remark like this and then no more forever” (Thompson vol. II p. 503).  From such a reaction it would appear that Frost would never fully recover from the death of his wife.
The final death that Frost was to suffer through was the suicide of his son Carol.  Carol had suffered from extreme depression for much of his life and often spoke of suicide.  After the death of his mother, his mental state grew increasingly worse.  As Thompson notes: “Sinking deeper than ever into his delusions of persecution and into financial dependence on his father, he became increasingly morose and withdrawn as he despaired of ever achieving the success he coveted for the sake of his wife and son.” (Thompson vol. III p. 69)

        In the days following up to Carol’s suicide, his wife Lillian phoned Frost about his son’s welfare.  She was in the process of checking into the hospital for a hysterectomy and was very concerned about Carol’s mental state.  Perturbed by her entrance into the hospital, he had threatened to commit suicide.  Frost traveled to Shaftsbury and spent several days with his son in an attempt to convince him otherwise while his wife was away.  Denied any clear victory, Frost left after making his son promise not to hurt himself under any condition. His son’s final words to his father were, “you always win an argument, don’t you?”
On the night of October 9 1940, however, after talking to his own son well into the night, Carol Frost went into the kitchen, burned his letters and poems, and shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle.  He was 38 years old when he died.

        Despite the loss of another son and the crushing death of his wife, Frost somehow managed to publish his second to last volume of poetry, A Witness Tree, in 1942.  By this point Frost was 68 years old, and, despite his earlier fears that his poetic talent had deserted him, he was still producing great works of poetry.  A poem that speaks directly to the loss of his wife is “Never Again Would Birds’ Song be the Same.”  Frost compares his deceased wife with Eve and demonstrates how the two of them permanently changed their surrounding despite the finite time they were there.  In this case it is the birds who’s song was altered simply by their presence and would never be the same.  With an attempt at not being trite, the presence of Eve and Elinor in the world made it permanently more beautiful, hence the alteration of the birds’ song for the better.  This in turn is also a reference to Frost's feelings for his wife when he echoes Tennyson’s famous line “It is better to have loved and lost/Tthan never to have loved at all.”  Despite her loss he is glad that she entered his life.

        His poem, "Triple Bronze," is also a reference to the deaths in his family.  Though he cites potential damage from the world as an excuse for “inner defense,” not many elements of the outside could be as harming to him as the loss of so many family members during his lifetime.  It is for this reason that he must build a wall “Of wood or granite or lime/ A wall too hard for crime/ Either to breach or climb.”  The crimes for him are the repeated theft of those closest to him throughout the years.  His only defense then is to build a wall, if not against future theft, at least against the pain he continues to suffer.

        With the writing of “To a Moth Seen in Winter” it seems as though the loss of Carol and Elinor made Frost think back to the death of young Elliot years before in July of 1900.  Though the postscript itself details the time the poem addresses, a close reader can date it without such help.  For Frost the Moth is his young son, and his appearance in winter is proof that he possesses the very human flaw of coming along at the wrong time.  He addresses the moth:  "And now play tell what lured you with false hope/To make the venture of eternity/And seek the love of kind in wintertime?"  For his son came into the world with hope of living a lifetime but never was able to due to his appearance in “winter time,” or a time not suitable for life and growth:   "And what I pity in you is something human,/The old incurable untimeliness,/Only begetter of all ills that are."  When the moth leaves he lets it go, saying: “You are right. My pity cannot help.”  He concludes with a realization that probably took years to develop when he says: “I cannot touch your life, much less can save/ Who am tasked to save my own a little while.”  This last line touches back to the guilt he felt after Elliot’s death, due to his lateness in calling a doctor.  For years he felt that his son’s death was his fault.  Perhaps, with the writing of this poem, he finally came to terms with the circumstances surrounding his son’s death.

        His last volume of poetry, Steeple Bush, would be published five years later on the 28th of May 1947.  It had been nine years since the death of his wife and seven since his son’s suicide.  As in his previous volumes, Frost does not make a big fuss over death in this volume.  Though he addresses it in a couple of poems, he makes sure not to make it stand out.  In this fashion he can keep some distance between his audience and the increasingly troublesome (due to his age) presence of death.  No longer would Frost have to face death among his family however.  Instead he would have to face the eminent truth of his own mortality.

        His increasing concern for his own future can be seen in his poem “The Night Light.”  Though the beginning of the poem deals with a woman’s habit of keeping a light by her attic bed to keep the darkness away, it clearly parallels his own similar fears.  This is revealed with the final lines of the poem.  The attention suddenly shifts from the woman to the author when he says:  "It is on me by night or day,/Who have, as I suppose, ahead/The darkest of it still to dread."  Here he is clearly defining the growing fears of his own mortality.  He continues to be unsure of what follows death, despite his increasingly religious bent.  Though he desires the comfort the woman draws from religion, he is too skeptical to fully convince himself of it as truth.

        Another poem that addresses this directly is “Were I in Trouble.”  In this poem the narrator is far into the night and the wilderness.  Almost completely alone, he finds comfort only in a single light, born by an unknown person.  He draws consolation from the light despite his knowledge that it would be little use for him should he get in trouble.  In his poem he addresses it:

                            And I away in my opposite wood
                            Am touched by that unintimate light
                            And made feel less alone than I rightly should,
                            For Traveler there could do me no good
                            Were I in trouble with night tonight.

The night then is Frost’s encroaching mortality, and the trouble to be found there is his death.  The light in the woods is a ray of religion, which bolsters his courage in the presence of death, despite his own skepticism of its usefulness.  This poem and “The Night Light” are the only two poems concerning death in Steeple Bush, and it is telling of how death weighs on his mind at this time, considering his age.

        By this time in his life Frost was 81 years old.  Since the age of 10, when his father was overcome by tuberculosis, Frost had had to suffer through the deaths of virtually his whole family.  The fact that such monumental losses only surfaced occasionally in his poetry is representative of his desire for separation from his readers.  His impulse to avoid vulnerability drove him away from creating such a body of work as Emily Dickinson had created.  Despite Frost’s disinclination to share such personal subjects with the audiences of his poetry, his contradictory desire for a closeness and honesty with them caused this subject to surface in a number of his poems.  In true Frost style, however, many of these poems are far from straightforward.
An analysis, then, of the poems concerning death in Frost’s body of work shows how he examined the topic.  Frost approached death with hesitation and fear.  The numerous cases of death in his family, combined with his own trepidation, cause Frost to seek desperately for an answer.  Through a reading of his work it appears as though in life he never found one.  With his death on the 29th of January 1963, it is anyone’s guess whether he ultimately found the answer he was looking for.



                                                                    Bibliography

1.  Thompson, L.  Robert Frost: The Early Years.  Holt, Rinehart and Winston publishing. New York, NY. 1966.

2.  Thompson, L.  Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph.  Holt, Rinehart and Winston publishing. New York, NY. 1970.

3.  Thompson, L.  Robert Frost: The Later Years.  Holt, Rinehart and Winston publishing. New York, NY. 1976.

4. Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays. Literary Classics of The United States Publishing.  New York, NY.  1995
 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Lyndsay Fredericksen
Kay Morrison and A Witness Tree

        There are responsibilities of being a biographical critic of any person, especially for the poet, Robert Frost.  The utmost responsibility of the biographical critic for Robert Frost is arguing how biographical elements enrich the understanding of his poetry.  Frost believes his passionate love affair with Kay Morrison is fundamental to his poetry.

              He believed the full story of his relations with Kay was essential to an
                    understanding of his life and work and hated to have his passion for her belittled
                    or demeaned. (Meyers 11)

For starters, an overview of Frost’s life and career of coming to terms with his own feminine prowess is explained using the transcendental sunrise-sunset theory that propels me through my own understanding of what the big-picture of anyone’s life is all about.  This enables us to see Frost’s poetry from a vantage point where Kay and Elinor, different, yet similar, greatly add to the complexity of his poetic voice.  Particularly attention is paid to: the changes in Frost’s discourse after Elinor’s death, how Frost’s relationship with Kay Morrison vitally influences Frost, and why we must consider the relationship to understand Frost’s poetry, especially because of his friend’s overt cover up to maintain his Purtianical New England poet image.

        The argument concentrates on the first couple of poems in the volume A Witness Tree, the first volume Frost publishes after Elinor’s death when he is sixty-eight.  The overwhelming evidence of Kay’s influence on Robert Frost is covered up by herself, her husband, and Frost’s intimate friends in order to preserve the image of the Puritanical, white-haired, rugged New England poet.  To argue the biographical relevance Kay Morrison has on Frost’s later poetry, I will look at various objections as to why Kay Morrison did not greatly influence Frost. This paper uncovers the truth and provides insight into how Kay Morrison affects Frost’s work and why it is essential to know what happens in this private relationship.

The Sunrise-Sunset Relevancy

        Before getting in to the basics of the sunrise-sunset theory, general opinions of Frost’s collective work need reviewing.  Most people tend to think Frost’s poetry has two distinct phases, however, a closer look reveals a cycle, rather than two phases.  Academia’s criticisms accuse Frost of being a feminine poet early in his career and this is the central reason why in New Hampshire critics assume Frost shifts to the voice of a bard.  Knowing Frost’s spontaneous and exuberant spirit, a permanent transition from an emotion packed poet to a politically dry poet does not correlate with Frost’s personality.  He basically lives by telling the world to go to hell; therefore most of his poetry concerns itself with figuring himself out and commenting on his own world views.  He succeeds by confusing and questioning, and even by accusing people of robbing him of his right to his own self-expression.  This is seen in the chastising and advising letters to his friends and family on what he would do in any given situation, but heaven forbid if they should want to take his advice.

        People’s lives go in cycles and they are not as simple as we sometimes like to think.  Frost’s life is not virginal, it is not pure, it is not black and white, and it is not easily categorized into any genre or philosophy of belief.  This generalization that we all have a life cycle is in direct protest to those assuming Frost’s poetical career ends after or even before New Hampshire.  If that is the case, then he could have gone crazy like his sister Jeanie then and there or committed suicide like his son Carol.  He has no point to live and no right producing and feeding the audience "crap" poetry.  Pritchard believes A Witness Tree is the last book of poems where there is still evidence of Frost’s literary genius.  Compared to A Further Range, which is filled with “many expert performances in a mode which approached light verse,” the opening string of poems in A Witness Tree is weighty and sustain an expression of the “inner weather” (Pritchard 227).  Some critics only view Frost’s later volumes as half-hearted attempts at poetry.  Regardless of academia, Frost to this day remains a popular American poet.  This is good and bad for Frost and his efforts to share his genius with the rest of the world.  And if there is anything else Frost struggles with more it is with people misunderstanding and belittling his work.

        If his later poetry has no staying quality or lacks ingenuity, then why are some of the best poems--“Once By the Pacific” and “Last Mowing” in West-Running Brook and “Directive” in Steeplebush--found in these later volumes?  While it is true Frost attempts to be a political bard during the middle of his career with poems such as “Build Soil” in A Further Range and “The Gift Outright” in a Witness Tree—there are poems within A Witness Tree such as “A Silken Tent,” “All Revelation,” “Most of It,” and “The Discovery of the Madeiras” that are love poems showing Frost returning to his more feminine tradition of discussing emotions and appealing to nostalgia.  For both male and female writers, “gender is continually in process, an identity that is performed and actualized over time within given social constructs” (Felski 21).  Taking social constructs into our typical typecast of Frost being the rugged, sincere, nature-loving New England poet—we must purge ourselves of preconceived social prejudices in order to approach his life looking at his full spectrum, or a further range beyond our clichéd understandings.

        These later published love poems in A Witness Tree are glimmers of gold to the reader seeking Frost’s judicially feminine side.  He has not rid himself completely of being in touch with his feelings and questioning love.  Karen Kilcup, a scholar on Frost and feminine literary tradition, believes Frost’s masculine persona is developed with high stakes.  He masks the feminine (which is also the analogically effeminate/gay) affiliations in order to ensure his status in the evolving canon (Kilcup 5-6).  He remains true to himself by exploring the complexities of relationships, rather than remaining strictly a political poet.  The results are poems everyone relates to and it is this very human element, which makes me argue his relationship with Kay is the reason for this new surge in love poems.  His gush of raping love is not confined to his wife.  His midlife crisis overflows into his political poems.  He yearns so pathetically after academic acclaim that he loses sight of himself and the truly great catharses he is capable of penning, when he tries to be a voice of men in a land of war.

        Keep in mind this brief synopsis of the Emerson and Thoreau’s transcendentalist summary of a man’s life that I will briefly explain.  Transcendentalists, myself included, believe in a sunrise-sunset theory.  Like Christianity and Buddhism, the question of man’s purpose in life is central to the philosophical outlook/belief system.   During birth and the early years of Frost’s poetical life, he is very close in proximity to absolute truth, which is represented by the metaphorical horizon.  A Boy’s Will is indicative of Frost understanding or having an awareness of his true self, when he writes in the feminine tradition.  He is such a great man for thinking out of the box, he staunchly refuses to be labeled a man who uses emotion and regionalism in his poetic voice.  His decision to ignore the normal stereotype of the Romantic male poet is what makes Frost’s poetry fresh.  However, Frost adds to the complexity of critically understanding his highly erotic work when he asserts his masculinity by playing with our cultural subjectivity of male and female roles.  He says he understands himself only in relation to himself; women are mearly “sources of male gratification” (Meyers 6).  Frost succinctly writes about women and can hit the nail on the head about how women think.  At the middle of his road, or at the sun’s zenith, he completely misses, and this is when he is trying most not to be himself.  This throws critics and readers off kilter because they do not know what to make of a diminished thing—his later poetry asserts homoerotic masculinity, but at the same time offerspowerfully emotional life stories that suggest he has come full circle.

        According to transcendentalism, mid-life is when the sun is at its peak.  At this stage Frost’s life is mostly concerned with material issues.  Likewise by the time New Hampshire is produced, the phenomenon of Frost being a political bard coincides with the point in his life when he is least in touch with himself and his feminine side.  The transcendental image of Frost’s life being one of discovery paints a picture of his poetry evolving.  This is not the typical stereotype that there are two periods in Frost’s life: his early feminine poetry and his later bard poetry.

        Hearkening back to his more feminine style rectifies his midlife work, which is bunk.  He becomes boring and loses his pizzazz.  What better way will get him in touch with his emotions than falling in love with a woman half his age, younger than his daughter, and one who loves having sex?

Changes in Discourse

        The biggest changes in discourse are the dialogues between men and women.  The poetry during the earlier volumes reflects a very self-centered, me-occupied Frost, who writes about women in regards to sex and his fantasies, as seen in A Boy’s Will, particularly “In a Vale” and “Mowing.”  “Wind and Window Flower” also speaks about how men are impervious to women pining after them.  At this point in his life he is concerned with other matters, the flower sighing and pining on the windowsill is only a picture, “He was a winter wind,/ Concerned with ice and snow,/ Dead weeds and unmated birds,/ And little of love could know” (Frost 20).   Similarly Frost knowingly comments about not knowing what love is, but he ironically is able to understand the ways of women—even if only superficially.  “To the Thawing Wind” is an incantation about poetry itself, but it also has this pent up sexual reproductive energy.  This sexual energy conveys itself through his grammatical techniques prior to the climax.  There is only one enjambed line in the poem that is a rush of words and action sequences. “A Dream Pang” also divulges Frost’s passions and need to find love.  Critics often remark Frost’s critical receptions are what make Frost increasingly repress his feminine voice, so that by his mid-life, his poetry becomes more bard-like and political.

        As soon as Elinor dies, Frost is depressed.  Frost correlates his rise from depression to Kay Morrison, who pulls him out of his hole and serves as his inspiring muse, manager, and mistress for the last twenty-five years of his life (Meyers 1).  There must have been an original mutual attraction between Kay and Frost that makes Frost forget about the pain, suffering and guilt of knowingly dragging Elinore through too many moves in her frail condition their whole marriage.  Utterly at a loss for words and having only Kay as a guide, Frost lashes out at all those around him.  Frustrated at his loss of poetical fortitude through this dark period of his life, he isolates his daughter when he may need her the most.  In a letter to his daughter, Lesley Frost Francis, in November of 1939, he wrote:

I am going to say one thing more on a particularly serious subject and then keep still forever.  You were entirely wrong in your understanding of that poem of last summer and I was completely right.  The aversion expressed made me sure of the separation implied.  My instinct had been right from the beginning.  Lets leave it at that whatever the outcome (Grade 216)

He chooses an infatuating relationship over Lesley’s care and writes deploringly to his daughter Lesley during the first few months after Elinor is cremated about how much life "sucks," and all the time implying that he should get his way in any matter.  But before addressing how Kay affects his later poetry, we must first address the inspiration for his poems.

        Some of the poems in A Witness Tree are written earlier when Elinor is still alive.  Frost just did not publish them during Elinor’s life, because he wants to keep their intimate secrets private or he purposely defers some of his better poetry to keep up the appearance of Elinor’s frosty exterior while she is still alive.  Frost is a manipulating, controlling, calculating man.  While he writes some of the love poetry when his wife is alive, Frost has always revised his poetry and it is not until Kay that he can publish his more private material.  “Although Kay Morrison was indeed presented with the poem, there is no reason to believe that she was ultimately its original inspiration.  In all likelihood, the poem was written to Elinor, but after Elinor’s death, the increased respect and love he felt for Kay prompted Frost to present this sonnet to her” (Cramer 124).

        Cramer, like Morse and many others, notes that Frost hesitates to publish “The Subverted Flower” because the elements were too daring and autobiographical.  In a 1960 interview with Richard Poirier, Frost told him: I wouldn’t read “The Subverted Flower” to anybody outside.  It isn’t that I’m afraid of them [certain poems], but I don’t want them out.  I’m shy about certain things in my books, they’re more—I’d rather they’d be read.  A woman asked me, ‘What do you mean by that ‘subverted flower’?  I said, ‘Frigidity in women.’ She left” (Cramer 130). Therefore, it is safe to ascertain some of these poems may have been written for and about Elinor in A Witness Tree, but Frost’s own repressed sexual fantasies find powerful form and verse after he meets the second love of his life, Kay Morrison. “The Most of It” and “One or Two” focus on Frost’s longing for Kay and whether he will remain by himself or if Kay will join him.  These poems echo “Two Look at Two,” in which the doe encounters the two lovers, a somewhat tamer version of lovers based on Frost and Elinor’s union.  In the later poem, it is the buck who calls out for an “original” response, a cry that Meyer’s writes is “answered by an embodiment of sexual power, when a great buck suddenly appears on the opposite cliff and swims across the lake.  He walks with horny tread, penetrates the brush, and creates an orgasmic waterfall so that his mate can make The Most of It” (Meyers 18).  In the later years of his life, Frost aims to write about the ideal and real woman in one woman.  In “The Discovery of the Madeiras” the “stolen lady” is symbolic of Tristan’s theft of Iseult and the feverishly bound slave girl represents Iseult’s fatal passions, similar to Frost’s life and his relationship with Elinor and Kay.  The pale and thoughtful lady is Elinor, the dark lady is Kay—and in this poem Frost may be explaining the supplanting of Elinor for Kay (Meyers 18).   And if this is the case, and the following text proves this cycle, explaining Frost’s love life in terms of transcendentalism makes sense.  “A Silken Tent” is able to capture the mood of a beloved woman, who is a silken tent swaying in the summer breezes.   Meyers believes the masculine cedar pole shooting upward toward heaven, symbolizing the sureness of the soul, as well as the tent swaying gently in “guys”operates as a  triple pun on ropes, mockery, and men and thus encapsulates the complex relationships between men and women.  “Though not strictly held by any single cord, the feminine tent, supported by the masculine pole, is loosely bound by countless silken ties of love” (Meyers 17).  The feminine tent and her lady’s whimsy only realize the slight bondage of the ropes, or man’s “goatish lust,” when the “correspondent breeze,” indicative of the Romantic poet’s inspiration and creative power, dries the ropes and makes them taut (Meyers 17).
        Frost understood how women think and behave, as his poetry demonstrates.  However, his private life seems to be a different matter, because he was so deeply conflicted about his passionate urges and his wife’s cool exterior.  In “The Subverted Flower” Frost writes about how women want a spiritual union.  When men have sex, they are animalistic and get lost in the physical side.  Stearns Morse in his explication, “’The Subverted Flower’: An Exercise in Triangulation,” approached this poem in three different ways.  First from Sidney Cox’s literal point of view, next from Lawrence Thompson’s biographical onee, and third from our own culture’s subjectivity about proper verses bestial sexuality (Morse 170-172).   Thompson noted in his biography that on Frost’s authority the first draft of the poem may have been published in A Boy’s Will, but Frost did not have it published because the content was too autobiographical and daring.  Instead it was published four years after Elinor’s death.  In fact, the publishing of “The Subverted Flower” may have been from a crisis in Elinor and Frost’s relationship, “whose shyness and reticence thwarted his passionate and importunate lovemaking until the poetry of Shelley…came to his aid.”  Thompson offers this view: “Metaphorically, the poem extends the meaning of the title until it includes or represents the unnatural attitude of the girl toward physical passion” (Morse 171).  However, the tricky part is that Sidney Cox was an intimate friend of Frost and a disciple (needless to say this made Frost uneasy), and Lawrance Thompson “was an equally warm friend but viewed Frost from a novelist’s point of view…[or] of one who had for years lectured on the novel” (Morse 172).  Morse called this poem “unFrostian,” because though Frost had written before movingly about love, directly in “Earth’s the right place for love,” and subtly, Morse could think of nothing else, besides this poem and “The Discovery of the Madeiras” in which Frost was explicit about “love’s sexual root” (Morse 170). And this poem actually describes the reactions of the man and the woman to their brief instant of passion.  For the boy, desire to dominate and control is reinforced by the descriptions of:

                                The demon of pursuit
                                That slumbers in a brute…
                                She looked and saw the shame:
                                A hand hung like a paw,
                                An arm worked like a saw…
                                She looked and saw the worst.
                                And the dog or what it was,
                                Obeying bestial laws.  (Frost 308-310)
 

Hatred is evoked out of the girl in the garden, because her innocence has been lost and she briefly gave in to her animalistic urges by being passionate when she acted suggestively.   Her image of herself being pure is subverted and destroyed when the man deflowers her virginity with his eyes.

        Frost’s poetry is often popular because the sentence sounds he creates lull the general reader into a feeling of being able to relate to his common themes.  Liebman, a Frost scholar, notes: “for all his seeming accessibility, he is, as Richard Poirier has shown, an exceptionally elusive and allusive poet.  In his prose works, too, in which he might be expected to be less opaque, he is too often indirect and metaphorical to be easily pinned down” (Liebman 4).  Frost often writes about the familiar, but just when the reader is about to glimpse the truth, Frost deceives the reader and pulls away from revealing the truth.  He strongly believes metaphors are the only way to understand life.  His love poems are rich in extended metaphors.  Likewise, the only way Frost could come up with such poignantly rich poetry was from writing from actual experience.  “Statements or propositions Emerson believed (and Frost seems to have agreed), have no meaning at all outside their poetic context.  And even poems (whether in verse or prose) reveal their ultimate import only in the context of a poet’s entire work.  Thus, poems like “Design” and “The Bear” must be understood in relation to the rest of Frost’s oeuvre” (Liebman 4).

        After meeting Kay, Frost produced poetry that dealt with men and women and the complexity of their different levels of friendship/intimacy between the opposite sexes.    If Elinor were his only love, then to even produce this kind of work would be impossible, because his older poetry has to do with more than husband and wife relationships.  To understand A Witness Tree then the complete works up to this point have to be taken into account because they display his personal and poetical growth.

        Apart from Frost's friends’ subjective points of views or those of the reviewers, the reader can sense the frustration and joy of the human soul revealing its innermost feelings in these poems.  Frost elusively believes that the “metaphor is the divinely appointed way of writing one thing when you mean another, instead of clearly stating what you mean” (Meyers 16).  However, these pent up feelings burst through his own self-preservation techniques of only fleetingly revealing parts of himself in his poetry when he publishes A Witness Tree.  He has such passionate urges now with Kay in his life that in this later volume he prints “The Subverted Flower” and “All Revelation” (which is a take-off of “Revelation”) in an attempt to purge himself of his turbulent feelings.  She will not allow Frost to openly claim they are having a relationship and so his poetry rids most of his pent up frustration at being denied his conquest.

        The final volume of Thompson’s biography, which  the Morrison’s read and gutted (R.H. Winnick says they made “substantial improvement” in it), only notes that the crisis “may somehow have involved Kathleen Morrison” (Pritchard 225).  Half of his despair may be from the literary world and populace at large not even noticing the sexual overtones and declarations of his love for Kay.  The Booklist in an obtuse review observed the volume as having “characteristically quiet poems with little emotional stress,” and the Catholic World exclaimed: “Here are honestly beautiful nature poems” (Meyers 16).  His little understood couplet, taken in the context of his friends withholding his love life from the populace, offers much about the two worlds in which he was living:  “We dance round in a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows” in “The Secret Sits” (Frost 329).

        His discourse begins to change in the language he uses with colleagues and in his work.  His masculinity is always an issue for him and in the months following Elinor’s death he starts hinting at sex much more and even about his relationship with Kathleen to his friends to seem more masculine (Meyers 4).  Frost’s faithfulness to his own lusterless sex life with his high school sweetheart, Elinore put him in a situation that, by the time he is sixty-four, he releases his repressed passions on Kay; he holds nothing back (Meyers 4).  Lesley Lee Frost, his granddaughter remarks: “Their relationship had an original flash point, which was probably sexual…but too much can be made of that.  The relationship very quickly subsided into one of close friendship and mutual respect” (Parini 315).  Even if their relationship cools, the material for Frost to be upset about not being able to have Kay to himself presents its complications in poetical form.

        In A Witness Tree there are passions and complexities that are not seen before in his other volumes.  This is why it makes more sense to think that some of the poems respond to the physical and mental power struggle between Frost and Kaythan that the volume unfolds as a memoir for his love for Elinor.   In the early  “In a Vale” discusses a fantasy world where a man is metaphorically discussing a virginal experience with nature.  Frost’s first sexual encounter with Elinor is not encouraging for a man with strong passionate urges.  He turns to his poetry and learns to channel his eroticism in poems like “In a Vale” where extended metaphors take on new meaning.

        A focus on  the relationship between Frost and Kay Morrison enriches our understanding of Frost’s poetry.  He tells Raymond Holden, a friend and poet in Boston in May 1939, that he is afraid of his passions for Kay.  He divulges to Holden, that:

In his lightest, aphoristic manner that he had had many troublesome feelings
about different women, but had loved only one.  I do not know why I felt that he
was meaning to imply that the one was not Elinor… He once told me that he
didn’t dare let his emotions be aroused for fear that they would ruin him, so strong
were they potentially. (Meyers 6)

His passionate relationship with Kay Morrison is well covered up by his Puritanical New England friends, who are more concerned with image and propriety than with telling the truth.

        The best way to explain how Kathleen Morrison influences Frost’s life is by referencing Frost.  In a letter to his editor, William Sloane, in May 1943 Frost acknowledges Kay’s inspiration: “You can find internal evidence in the book itself that but for her there would have been no seventh book…[I] couldn’t have been induced to do anything except with something better than tact…The dedication of the book is no ordinary acknowledgement” (Meyers 16).  The more explicit details about his colleague’s wife and his soon to be caretaker and managerial secretary may be found in the unseen work of his biographer, Lawrance Thompson.  When Frost joined Kay in Vermont during July 1938--when Ted is away at Bread Loaf--the two often took long walks. On these walks,  “he took along condoms,” which Frost had been reluctant to use with Elinor (Meyers 5).   And it is here where Frost does not feel bestial when having sex with Kathleen.  Frost spoke brilliantly about his family tragedies and his poetry, and she seemed to pity him.  Nearly thirty years older than she, and Kay a year younger than Frost’s daughter, Lesley, his pathetic demeanor makes her feel she must care for him.  According to Thompson’s unpublished typescript:

Frost began making passionate love to her and found that she was willing…
All he had to do was to take off her drawers and consummate an urge that
seemed mutual.”  Frost (to use one of his own favorite metaphors) rode on her
own melting.  The contrast between Elinor’s virginal rejection of his first sexual
overtures, which had made him feel bestial, and Kay’s eager response, which
revived and inspired him, was reflected in the placement of “The Subverted
Flower” just after “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” in A Witness
Tree.”  (Meyers 5)

This is interesting to note because Thompson’s published works make no mention of Kay.  A.B. Guthrie, a loyal friend of Ted Morrison, Kay’s husband, observed that Frost was “the captive of fierce and aberrant passions” during the summer at Bread Loaf after Elinor’s death (Meyers 4).  Another man, John Ciardi, also notices that Frost struggles with an inner conflict: “Frost was intensely puritanical.  I think he had also a very strong sexual impulse, and these two things set up a contest of forces” of which power won (Meyers 4).  At the beginning of the relationship with Kay, Frost dreaded trouble or a public scandal; he did not like the fact that Kay led a dishonest double life, but he told Thompson, his biographer, “I’m a perfectly normal animal: I can’t always behave” (Meyers 4).

Why the Relationship is Central to Understanding

        The most frustrating aspect of proving that Frost did indeed have a sexual affair with Kay is the problem of the group of friends covering up for one another.  In order to understand his later poetry, you have to understand what happened between the friends who covered up for him.  However, we do not have all of the clues to provide a succinct alibi.  It is noteworthy that for Frost, even publishing love poems was a feat, givedn his intense wish to keep private affairs to himself.  A Witness Tree is the first volume Frost publishes after his high school sweetheart turned wife, Elinor, dies.  Elinor Frost’s death in March 1938, as well as his turbulent and passionate love affair with Kay Morrison, compounded with the alienation from his closest family member and daughter, Lesley, changes Frost’s life and poetry.  He also has hemorrhoid problems and depression, which further affected his work, and in turn made Frost drink profusely, use foul language and go (as he admitted) “crazy” for the six months after Elinor’s death (Meyers 1).  By July, Kay Morrison replaces the empty space his wife and daughter filled.  She is married to Theodore Morrison, Frost’s colleague and the director of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, with which Frost became intimately associated perhaps as much so he could remain close to Kay as because he wanted to be involved in the retreat.  To do so, though, he had to overcome his jealous belief that Ted legally possessed Kay.  In December 1938, in Frost’s famously quoted letter to Lesley about “becoming grateful to Kathleen for her ministrations,” he told her: “If I find myself almost a member of the Morrison family (in my entire detachment) the pressure has been all mine from the moment when both Kathleen and Ted together merely suggested that I come and live near them in Cambridge” (Grade 202).  The thing that keeps the lovers and friends closely intertwined is Frost’s poetry.

        Frost only adds further chaos and thus further material for his poetry when he proposes to Kay during the first summer together, but she refuses.  Years later, her daughter, Anne, remembers: “Kay was both proper and unconventional.  She insisted on keeping up appearances and was content as long as things seemed all right on the surface” (Meyers 2).  Frost is astonished that Kay, who behaves conventionally in society, could be so wild with sex.  Frost told Robert Newdick, his friend, that he felt unconstrained for the first time.  Newdick notes that Frost “needs, wants feminine companionship and friendship, and will have it.  Is fearful of arrangement with K. Morrison-for her and Ted, rather than for himself.  If he were Ted, he wouldn’t permit it” (Meyers 4).  From Kay’s staunch refusal to even admit there is a relationship, Frost begins to understand what relationships with women are really like when they have no tangible rings on their fingers binding themselves to one man.

        Mordecai Marcus believes ‘“The Silken Tent” is a virtuoso sonnet performance in which a single sentence and a comprehensive metaphor are maintained in imitation of the breathless effort of the woman portrayed and of the admiring speaker.  .  .  Every detail characterizes her and her human relationships.”   He goes on to say that the guys holding the central cedar pole upright are taught, “the taughtening represents tensions in relationships, and the slightness of the bondage shows that the woman’s tender dutifulness responds not to compulsion but to loving necessity” (Marcus 167).  “A Silken Tent” beautifully and explicitly deals with this issue of bondage and freedom, the ties that bind men and women, ensnaring them together.

        Frost begins to dissect the complications of love as far back as A Boy’s Will.  And even though in A Witness Tree there are the disturbing poems no matter how many times you read them, the full meaning remains shakily out of your grasp, like the virtual bestial rape of the girl’s innocence in “The Subverted Flower.”  This poem grapples more with the mind games that play between the opposite sexes.  It is richer and fuller than his other love poems; it is not only shocking, but disturbing.  This may be because Kay arouses a new fire in him that emerged only vicariously before.  Frost “took a keen interest in the sexual life of his friends,” but had remained faithful to Elinor the whole time they are married and she is alive (Meyers 4).

        Frost’s critics often miss the overtly sexual overtones, but if you remain in touch with what his personal relationship with women are, a new world opens up to understand Frost.  He grew up with his mother and sister taking care of him; he married Elinor at a young age—setting up a paradox in Frost’s mind where he was needy of female mothering.  “In a Vale” is a sexually repressed poem: “Before the last went, heavy with dew … and thus it is I know so well/ why the flower has odor, the bird has song” (Frost 24-25).  The dew symbolizes the female and her mystical moist sexual organs.  The bird in poetry is often a metaphor for the poet; it is also an association with sex—i.e. birds and bees.  In this poem Frost is not sexually satisfied in his life—and when Elinor and Frost have their first sexual encounter, she does not fully enjoy the experience, is rigid, all of which continues throughout their marriage.  The flower, a well-known fertility symbol, is reflective of blossoming female sexuality as well, especially when he speaks about the flower having an odor linked to the pheromones attracting men to women.

        Perhaps what makes the relationship between Frost and Kay pivotal to understanding his later poetry is the knowledge that many scholars reiterate again and again that Frost controls his relationships and friendships.  He always wants to get his way, whether it is making people see his world as he saw it or telling people conflicting stories; he survives by being self-centered.  Therefore, the one quote from Frost, which begins this whole argument, becomes the essential factor in my attempt to find evidence that Frost has more than a Platonic affair with Kay.  During his entire life he grows up around women.  Something then in his personal life must affect him in such a way during the years after Elinor dies that he must keep writing and producing highly charged, dramatically sexual poetry. He never really gets over Kay or this possessive love for her, because he writes The Masque of Mercy years later, and Jesse Belle convincingly correlates with Kay’s demeanor.  There are many poems that reflect Frost’s sentiments about women and love during his last years of writing poetry.

Covering His Tracks

        Here are some examples of some conflicting, yet somewhat truthful, discussions Frost has with his friends during the first of the last twenty-five years of his life.  They Kay show Kay is more than Platonically involved with him.  These definitely cannot be about Elinor, or about his inner conflict of loving only her.  Therefore, Kay influences his life and his work, and breathes life back into his poetry.  One of his friends, Margaret Bartlett, who at the time did not know about Kay, saw Frost as being rejuvenated, and she assumed it was from his liberation from Elinor.  Frost struggles with concealing or revealing his affair, but in 1939 in Frost’s jubilancy he tells Sidney Cox: “My secretary has taken me in hand to keep me lecturing and talking as of old.  But I am very wild at heart sometimes.  Not at all confused.  Just wild-wild” (Meyers 5).  He even says if it were not for Kay, he would not have produced any more volumes after Elinor’s death.  He tries reassuring his possessive and censorious daughter when he is aware of Lesley’s cruelty and Kay’s kindness during his period of loneliness after Elinor’s death:  “You must be grateful to her for having helped me through my bad time… I am best as I am, though the hours alone are sometimes pretty desolate “ (Meyers 6).  He also reveals to Louis Mertins, his bibliographer, that Kay is a good maternal figure for him, that she both saves and inspires him, thereby revealing how much his existence is wrapped up with hers:

I owe everything in the world to her.  She found me in the gutter, hopeless, sick,
run down.  She bundled me up and carted me to her home and cared for me like a
child, sick child.  Without her I would today be in my grave.  If I have done
anything since I came out of the hospital [in January 1940], it is all due to her. (Meyers 6)

With a marriage without passion and the critics poking fun at his feminine style, Frost attempted to change his style to be accepted by academia not just the popular crowd.  Ample evidence from Frost and the negative reviews talk about Frost losing his gift.  What coincidence in his life affected him so deeply that by his mid-sixties life was breathed back into his poetry?  Kay merely being his managerial secretary would not be sufficient.

        Even asserting that she serves only in the muse role cannot suffice.  He writes over five hundred love letters to her when he is traveling or separated from Kay.  Only nineteen fragments survive because she destroys all the rest (Meyers 7).  And his heart breaks at Kay’s cruelty for not divorcing Ted or for publicly acknowledging their relationship.  Whether he is sick or not is a question.  And even though she is young enough to be his daughter, something physical has happened between the two.  Frost is a very straightforward character; therefore I find it hard to believe dreaming up a fantasy relationship.  While imagining a sixty-year-old man sexually active is hard to want to understand, what else could rev his life back into action, when we know his mind and body has been repressed for much of his life?  He continually writes her love poems and from time to time reassures her that she is his inspiration and vital to his work: “The poetry into which my heart would go for you aches at the threat of being denied birth” (Meyers 7).  Nine years later he reminds her yet again that he is still her troubadour: “Ninety-nine percent of the time I am your and the Muses’ only” (Meyers 7). She continually refuses to divulge their relationship.

        He openly discusses his relationship with Kay with close friends and his biographers.  To make matters even worse, some of his friends also are having illicit affairs with Kay.  Therefore, the sticky cobweb binding the circle of friends together gets even more restricting. This, in turn, ends up complicating the matter of what kind of a man Frost actually is when we know his friends carry on their own affairs awhile covering up his.  So who are we to believe?  Frost says that in order to understand his later poetry, you have to understand his love life with Kay.  A Witness Tree, especially the first seven poems, explicitly deals with love and with its powerful affects on people’s relationships.  Critics attribute “Subverted Flower” and “A Silken Tent” to Elinor; however, knowing more of his relationship, the “Subverted Flower” can only be for Elinor and “A Silken Tent” only for Kay.

        Thompson begins disliking Frost more as he finds out more truths about the poet.  Thompson declares: “The more evidence I find on the story, the more unpleasant and shameful the ‘romance’ becomes” (Meyers 13).  In his literary companion of biographical contexts and associations Jeffrey Cramer, like many others, notes that Kay Morrison is the person who
“helped put Frost back on his feet” (Cramer 123).  Cramer retells the controversy between who this volume is meant for, Elinor or Kay.  Her entanglements with more than just Frost and Thompson confuse the love triangle even more.  Stafford Dragon was Frost’s handsome and energetic hired man on the Vermont farm.  Visitors who are familiar with the sexual situations at Bread Loaf during this time jokingly refer to “Stafford-theman-Ka-hires as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’” (Meyers 9).  Kay also sleeps with her husband, Ted’s, “best friend” who is also a married writer named, Bernard De Voto.  The past of each of these men intertwines back several years, but she ties the knot even tighter, because she is part of “Benny’s harem” longer than she is Frost's lover.  De Voto is frequently quoted out of context for saying, “you’re a good poet, Robert, but you’re a bad man” (Meyers 10).  De Voto is referring to Frost’s relations with Kay and how De Voto, being Kay’s amoral lover the longest, thinks it is “morally acceptable to sleep with Kay as long as he [Frost] did not try to take her away from Ted” (Meyers 10).  However, the most influential love triangle that affects Frost’s biography is not the De Voto—Kay—Frost relationship, but the Thompson—Kay—Frost relationship.  Meyers notes that Thompson’s intimacy with Kay allows him to participate in and even change the course of the life he was writing” (Meyers 10).  In a letter to Kay, Thompson tells her how to avoid Frost’s advances and increasingly neurotic obsession of having her for his own.  Kay, afraid Thompson knew too much of the Kay—Frost relationship, in later years remains cool and friendly toward Thompson, because Frost will not make her his literary executor and unbeknownst to Frost, Kay also loves Thompson and tries to get on Thompson’s good side so they can edit her relationship with Frost out of his biography.  Obviously, the intricacies get more and more complex as the inner circle of Frost’s friends sleep with Kay or know about Frost’s love for Kay and wrath for Ted for legally remaining bound to her in marriage.

        The main reason Frost’s love life with Kay is covered up is to maintain propriety and not to sully anyone’s image.  Meyers comments: “the suppression of emotions, the preservation of decorum, the denial of intolerable reality, were all intensely Jamesian.  The lies hurt everyone concerned, but all the players gained something valuable by accepting them” (Meyers 12).  The affairs are covered up predominantly because the circle of friends know they each somehow serve as part of Frost’s inspiration.  Frost warned Thompson: “don’t let it be confused with anything so pale as platonic” (Meyers 11).  The love relationship between Thompson and Kay adds greater convolution, because they depend on each other emotionally to bolster their own well being as they take care of Frost and his fanatical outbursts.  Both serve as his wet nurse.  They strain their relationship because they cannot be truthful with their guarded feelings and their disagreement about the best way to lie about the Kay-Frost relationship.

        Frost agrees to wait until after his death for the deception Kay tells everyone of only being his secretary to be revealed.  When he does this he creates another intense conflict.  He does not appoint Kay as his literary executor because he is afraid she would cut all traces of their relationship out of the biography.  Thompson decides he is more inclined to reveal the relationship, but not the true relationship.  Instead he “twisted Frost’s desire for revelation into a supposed wish ‘to glamorize and dramatize the story, so that he and Kay Morrison as lovers would somehow seem noble and dignified in their ways of pretending that Ted Morrison blocked them off from fulfilling their romance’” (Meyers 12).  Lesley, who does not like Kay at all, excises letters from her father in the collection of family letters that show their family feud.  Lesley strongly believes Kay is taking her mother’s place and usurping Frost’s own fame; she even refers to Kay as “the whore” (Meyers 14).

        Thompson dies in 1973 and before the third volume was completed three years later by R.H. Winnick, Kay and Ted “gutted the volume before publication by excising all traces of her intimacy with Frost” (Meyers 12).  Ted does anything to make his marriage seem happy, believing that despite Kay’s affair with Frost, he still can sleep with her, because Ted’s personal sacrifice is achieving a higher good.  Meyers more correctly appraises the situation by saying Ted is “a somewhat bloodless character, he had a low sex drive, was used to his wife’s infidelities, and would have done anything to avoid publicly accusing Kay of adultery and going through a scandalous divorce” (Meyers 12).  Even though Frost creates great conflicts between his friends and among his biographers, the whole story remains to be uncovered.  Perhaps as avid readers of Frost’s works, we should not consider his life story.  At the same time, repeatedly, the Puritanical exterior has been proven a façade.   Salem witch trials…  Therefore, we must be open to all interpretations of Frost and from where he finds the material to make great poetry.  It is not just an overly active imagination.  The material they gave, despite the lack of moral integrity, is often absent in any outsiders understand of what kind of man laid behind the nationally popular poet.  Reuben Brown notes that “All Revelation” is centrally concerned with how human love gives meaning to the universe, as are the other poems at the beginning of A Witness Tree (Marcus 167).  This sentiment resurfaces repeatedly in his poetry, and knowing just a part of his private life and the inner circle chaos of love power-struggles, makes his love poetry really jump out at you.

        In January 1942 Frost worked on one poem that he sent to Louis Untermeyer about a crisis in his life that he does not want to name specifically, but he is obviously distraught about this crisis.  Thompson assumes the crisis is talking about suicide and treats the poem as another “spoiled-child” tantrum about anything that thwarts Frost’s own interests (Pritchard 224).

        Even though each person in Frost’s circle of friends thinks he or she is doing Frost’s reputation and popularity a favor by concealing what went oh behind closed doors—withholding this priceless information has undoubtedly hurt his popularity.  If anything has continued to make Frost a popular people’s poet, it is that people think his poetry is "nice."  People assume they understand half of what he is talking about metaphorically.  The one facet of Frost’s life that he adamantly demands to be revealed and spoken about continues to be ignored.  The huge issue for Frost of having guts to really love someone so much that his mind begins to act crazily is lost.  The truth about the unfathomable love Frost is capable of is lost because the evidence is destroyed, and thus we will never completely understand Frost’s psyche or what really drove Frost to write as he does.  Only a few people will go out on a limb and address Frost’s issues with himself, his femininity, and his relationships with women.  We lost the one key he wants to hand to his audience…the one request that may unlock Frost’s world of a “momentary stay” against confusion to those of us who truly care about understanding the life work of a truly great poet, not popular, but truly great —
 


                                           Bibliography

Cramer, Jeffrey S.  Robert Frost Among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s
Own Biographical Contexts and Associations.  North Carolina:  McFarland.
1996.

Felski, Rita.  The Gender of Modernity.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  1995.

Frost, Robert.  Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays: Complete Poems 1949 In the
Clearing Uncollected Poems Plays, lectures, Essays, Stories, and Letters.  New
York: Library of America.  1995.

Grade, Arnold, ed.  Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost.  New York:  State
University of New York Press.  1972.

Kilcup, Karen L.  Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition.  Michigan: University
of Michigan Press.  1998.

Morse, Stearns.  “The Subverted Flower: An Exercise in Triangulation.” Frost:
Centennial Essays II. Ed. Jac Tharpe.  Mississippi: University Press of
Mississippi.  1976.

Parini, Jay.  Robert Frost: A Life.  New York: Henry Holt.  1999.

Pritchard, William H.  Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, 2nd ed.  Massachusetts:
University of Massachusetts Press.  1984.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Amy Dessureault
Women and Longing for Escape in Frost's Poetry

        Throughout his poetry, Frost displays the theme of women who are discontented with their lives, including the men whom they are with as well.  Whether this poetry is a directly reflects Frost’s relationship with his wife and her dissatisfaction with him is unknown; however, the theme’s recurrence in his many collections shows its importance in his life.  Frost gives glimpses into the personal lives of his female characters, particularly in his dramatic works, showing their unhappiness with their lives.  The heart of their discontentment stems from the fundamental differences between men and women and their roles in society.  Women were expected to remain in the home and fulfill the role of housewife, remaining faithful to their husbands.  However, many women were unhappy with their roles as wives and mothers, not finding fulfillment through marriage and motherhood.  Frost delves into the female psyche and deals with these primary female concerns of the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.  He writes about the women, particularly those on the frontier or isolated farms who were forced to live hard lives with few neighbors or friends nearby to confide in.  Their loneliness and unhappiness in their relationships lead them to fantasize about other men and long for an escape.  Frost both subjectively and sympathetically addresses the plight of farmers' wives and their lack of physical fulfillment and personal connection in relationships as well as their discontentment with the stereotypical role of women.

        While women are unfulfilled by their lives, they do not express their feelings to their husbands; rather they repress them, often until the point that they are forced to run away.  In his novel Madame Bovary, Gustav Flaubert touches upon this theme of the unexpressed discontentment of Emmain her role as a wife and mother:  “What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult, and his sureness on this point ingratitude” (Flaubert 91).  Many of the husbands are left unaware of their wives’ discontentment because their wives do not directly express it.  For example, the husband in “Home Burial” is unaware of his wife’s unhappiness and trouble moving past the loss of their son.  The wife assumes that he cannot understand why she is upset with him, and he must ask her to find out what’s wrong:  “‘What is it you see / From up there always– for I want to know’” (Frost 55).  In this particular poem, Frost shows that the husband is attempting to understand what is bothering his wife, yet she does not give him the satisfaction of telling him what the problem is, instead expecting him to figure it out for himself.  In believing that males are incapable of understanding, the women isolate themselves from the men in their lives much like the personified female in Frost’s “My November Guest":

                            The desolate, deserted trees,
                            The faded earth, the heavy sky,
                            The beauties she so truly sees,
                            She thinks I have no eye for these,
                            And vexes me for reason why. (Frost 17).

The personified woman appreciates the beauty of the wildness and the sorrow in the trees’ loss of their leaves and their preparation for winter, yet she does not believe the man can empathize with their sorrow.  However, the man is capable of feeling the same depth of emotion, but is not given the chance to express it:

                             Not yesterday I learned to know
                             The love of bare November days
                             Before the coming of the snow,
                             But it were vain to tell her so. (Frost 17).

        The man does not attempt to tell the woman because he believes there is no point, since she will not understand what he says and will believe that he does not understand no matter what he says.  There is also a conflict between the male and female based on a fundamental gender difference of his knowing and her feeling.  Working with their biases that their husbands cannot understand them, the women run to others to communicate their needs.  Amy in “Home Burial” seeks comfort from her grief with strangers rather than her husband, the person she should be closest to in her loss.  Her husband notes this: “‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time. / Listen to me’”(Frost 56).  In “A Servant to Servant,” the wife confides in a stranger, presumably one of the hired men, that she is unhappy with her life:

                            “Bless you, of course, you’re keeping me from work,
                            But the thing of it is, I need to be kept.
                            There’s work enough to do– there’s always that;
                            But behind’s behind. The worst that you can do
                            Is set me back a little more behind.
                            I sha’n’t catch up in this world, anyway.
                            I’d rather you’d not go unless you must.” (Frost 69).

The housewife appreciates the chance to talk to someone and not be lonely.  She confides in a stranger rather than her husband, expressing the distance in her marriage.  As the husband and wife communicate less and less, they become increasingly isolated, and the bonds of marriage weaken.  However, this would not be necessary if both parties attempted a compromise.   While Amy, the wife in “Home Burial,” believes that her husband cannot understand her feelings, her husband might be able to if given a fair chance.  Amy’s husband is experiencing the same loss of a child as she is, yet she remains blind to his loss.  If the women would give their husbands the opportunity to understand them by expressing themselves and if their husbands would share their feelings with their wives, the relationships would be less distant and unsatisfying. However, the communication gap between genders prevents complete understanding from occurring within a relationship, so that women will never find the total fulfillment that they seek from their husbands and will continue to look elsewhere for it.

        The women in Frost’s poetry are dissatisfied not only with their relationships with their husbands but also with their role as housewives.  The women longed for more in life than the typical female role, being a wife and mother.  In the poem, “Wind and the Window Flower” the female, symbolized by the flower, considers leaving the “warm stove-window light” (Frost 20).  In “A Servant to Servants,” Frost provides his female narrator with the opportunity to voice her disagreement with her husband.  She is tired of cooking and cleaning for all the hired men and complains:

                            He looks on the bright side of everything,
                            Including me. He thinks I’ll be all right
                            With doctoring. But it’s not medicine–
                            Lowe is the only doctor’s dared to say so–
                            It’s rest I want–there, I have said it out–
                            From cooking meals for hungry hired men
                            And washing dishes after them– from doing
                            Things over and over that just won’t stay done.
                            By good rights I ought not to have so much
                            Put on me, but there seems no other way. (Frost 66).

The life of a farmer’s wife, much like that described in “A Servant to Servants” is difficult to endure as Kate Sanborn relates in Adopting an Abandoned Farm: “The farmers’ wives! what monotonous, treadmill lives! Constant toil with no wages, no allowance, no pocket money, no vacations, no pleasure trips to the city nearest them, little of pleasures of correspondence; no time to write, unless a near relative is dead or dying. Some one says that their one chance for social life is in going to some insane asylum!” (Kilcup 75!

        The women in Frost’s poetry often express a desire to expand their roles beyond the home, much as women during the early 20th century desired a greater role for themselves in the world.  After gaining the right to vote, women sought to break away from the “Cult of Domesticity” of the past and to gain the ability to experience new freedom.  Katherine Kearns points out that the monotony and constraints of being an isolated housewife: “tend toward hysteria and irrationality” (Kilcup 76).  The women in Frost’s poetry are often discontented by being confined and long to break free from the monotony into the world they see beyond the kitchen window.  In “The Cocoon,” Frost describes the women who are confined in their homes.

                            The inmates may be lonely women-folk.
                            I want to tell them that with all this smoke
                            They prudently are spinning their cocoon
                            And anchoring it to an earth and moon
                            From which no winter gale can hope to blow it, –
                            Spinning their own cocoon did they but know it. (Frost 227)

The women are confined by sewing and cooking and their role as a housewife.  The wind, which in other poems such as “Wind and a Window Flower,” is considered a masculine presence, cannot free them from their confines.  Despite their hopes that it will, it appears that in this later poem, Frost has come to the conclusion that the outside male presence will ultimately fail in bringing these women the freedom they desire because society, and not their husbands, is placing the constraints on them.  The women are unhappy being confined to the house, left to watch the outside world through a window, while the man has the freedom to leave the house and live life.  In “Wind and a Window Flower,” Frost personified the flower sitting on the window sill as a female, while personifying the wind as a male presence outside of the house at dark.

                            He marked her through the pane,
                            He could not help but mark,
                            And only passed her by,
                            To come again at dark. (Frost 20).

The wind wants the flower to leave the comfort of the house and experience life from outside the house.  He appeals to her wild nature.  The female almost goes, leaving behind the comforts of the house and typical chores of a housewife, such as cooking, yet draws back hesitantly:

                            Perchance he half prevailed
                            To win her for the flight
                            From the firelit looking-glass
                            And warm stove-window light.

                            But the flower leaned aside
                            And thought of naught to say. (Frost 20).

        However, though the flower draws back and does not go with the wind, she gives no reason for her staying, as if she is unsure herself and only hesitates because she is unwilling to take the risk.  The fact that the wind is far away in the morning shows that the female was concerned with what happened to him even though he left her.  The dynamic male presence outside of the household creates tensions within the household, even if only by planting the seeds of desire in the female’s mind.
In Frost’s poem, “In the Home Stretch,” the wife is dissatisfied by the move to a new house because it brings no change for her other than a different window with a slightly different view:  “She stood against the kitchen sink, and looked / Over the sink out through a dusty window / At weeds the water from the sink made tall” (Frost 108).  The new home has the same expectations and limitations of the old home with the household duties which constrain her and prevent her from experiencing freedom:

                            ‘But I ask
                            What are you seeing out the window, lady?’
                            ‘What I’ll be seeing more of in the years
                            To come as here I stand and go the round
                            Of many plates with towels many times.’
                            ‘And what is that? You only put me off.’
                            ‘Rank weeds that love the water from the dishpan
                            More than some women like the dishpan, Joe:
                            A little stretch of mowing-field for you;
                            Not much of that until I come to woods
                            That end all. And it’s scarce enough to call
                            A view.’ (Frost 108-9)

Her husband questions what she sees out the window, much as the husband in “Home Burial” questions what his wife sees, hoping to better understand her.  She sees the monotony of her daily life as a housewife through the window in the weeds nourished by the dishpan water.  The wife comments that the weeds love the dishpan “more than some women like the dishpan”(Frost 108), most likely referring to herself and her unhappiness, yet he hears it but does not question the way roles are set by society because being a male he is not placed under the same constraints as females.  Frost was aware of his wife’s occasional unhappiness with her life, particularly when Elinor’s mother visited and commented thather daughter was: “too busy caring for the baby, too busy getting meals and washing dishes for three hungry men” (Kilcup 76).  In many of his poems such as “A Servant to Servants” and “The Hill Wife,” Frost appears to provide a sympathetic voice for the women whose spirit is being crushed by the mundane routine: “Anyone who has been part of such a routine– or who can imagine it from the inside–will feel the wife’s nearly tangible pain, frustration and exhaustion, rather than simply judging her to be on the verge of madness (to which such conditions could understandably drive her)” (Kilcup 77).  The wife in “In the Home Stretch” mentions the woods, showing that even she, though long married and long enduring the life of a housewife, still desires the potential for escape from the unhappiness of her life in hope of experiencing new freedom.

        Frost expresses the importance for females to experience freedom using ideas from nature.  In “The Bear,” he uses the pronoun she to refer to the bear roaming the woods: “Such is the uncaged progress of the bear. / The world has room to make a bear feel free” (Frost 247).  The bear, like females, does not want to be constrained and caged.  When the bear becomes caged, Frost begins using the pronoun he, referring to the fact that men are more comfortable placing restraints on themselves as well as being restrained; whereas the female nature has a wildness about it and desire for freedom and mobility. Women wanted freedom but because of society’s doctrines, they were afraid to pursue the idea of taking that final step to freedom.  With some note of regret, the bear, like some of the women in Frost’s poetry, must leave behind the things that are important to her to make her cross-country journey:  “The bear puts both arms around the tree above her / And draws it down as if it were a lover / And its choke cherries lips to kiss good-by” (Frost 247).  In a number of Frost’s poems, including “Hill Wife” and “The Housekeeper,” the women are forced to leave the men they live with, normally their husbands, in order to live for themselves. The fact that Frost describes the cherries as choke cherries shows the constraints that the husbands and lovers place upon females.

        In “The Housekeeper,” Estelle longs for freedom and runs off after being bound to the man she has lived with for fifteen years:  ‘She’s in earnest, it appears.’/‘I’m sure she won’t come back. She’s hiding somewhere.’ (Frost 82).  Estelle worked for John as a housekeeper to provide for her mother and herself; however, it appears at one point she wanted to marry, or at least would have married, John, yet now no longer wants to.  She was forced to fight against society’s prejudices after living with a man for so long and being unmarried.  She struggled with the social stigma and longed to escape from being a subject that could be gossiped about and ends up running away to marry another man:

                            ‘The strain’s been too much for her all these years:
                            I can’t explain it any other way.
                            It’s different with a man, at least with John:
                            He knows he’s kinder than the run of men.
                            Better than married ought to be as good
                            As married– that’s what he has always said.
                            I know the way he’s felt– but all the same!’ (Frost 84).

        The social constraints placed upon females, which many of the characters long to escape, are placed upon them first by their parents and then later by their husbands.  The consideration many female characters give to fleeing to the woods is synonymous with achieving a new found freedom that the constraints of the society work to suppress.  The woods are generally used in literature to represent the lawless area on the outskirts of society where society and society’s rules do not apply.

        In “A Servant to Servant,” the female narrator hoped to gain freedom through marriage, yet she still remains constrained behind a window-view.

                            No wonder I was glad to get away.
                            Mind you, I waited till Len said the word.
                            I didn’t want the blame if things went wrong.
                            I was glad though, no end, when we moved out,
                            And I looked to be happy, and I was,
                            As I said, for a while–but I don’t know!
                            Somehow the change wore out like a prescription.
                            And there’s more to it than just window-views
                            And living by a lake. I’m past such help–
                            Unless Len took the notion, which he won’t,
                            And I won’t ask him– it’s not sure enough.
                            I s’pose I’ve got to go the road I’m going:
                            Other folks have to, and why shouldn’t I?
                            I almost think if I could do like you,
                            Drop everything and live out on the ground–. (Frost 69).

The woman longs for more freedom and actually alludes to the desire to leave with the man to whom she speaks.  She wants to leave society and the roles and expectations of it behind and return to living in nature.  However, she is aware that her husband will not agree.  Believing he will not understand, she does not even attempt to communicate her needs to him and instead communicates them to the stranger.
In portraying females who long for more freedom, Frost develops strong female characters who would be capable of handling the new found freedom they long to gain.  The women, though afraid, face their fears, often more willingly than their spouses.  In “The Fear,” the woman holds her husband back and says, “‘You’re not to come,’ she said. ‘This is my business. / If the time’s come to face it, I’m the one / To put it the right way’” (Frost 90).  In “The Witch of Coös,” the wife, not the husband faces the skeleton and traps it in the attic.  The females take the necessary action when their spouses are hesitant to do so.  The women exhibit power over their husbands in these situations through their courage.  In “The Pauper Witch of Grafton,” the woman similarly displays control over her husband and puts him in a precarious position.  “I made him gather me wet snow berries / On slippery rocks beside a waterfall. / I made him do it for me in the dark. / And he liked everything I made him do” (Frost 194).  In situations when the women display strength, they cannot be constrained by their husbands.  Amy’s husband cannot keep her from going to neighbors despite calling her back. “‘If– you– do!’ She was opening the door wider. / ‘Where do you mean to go? First tell me that. / I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!– ’” (Frost 58).  However by not closing the door and preventing her leaving, he exerts no power over her and she is in control of the situation.  Similarly, the woman in “The Impulse” has power over her husband and does not return when he calls.  The man fails to take the necessary action to regain control over his wife so that “He never found her . . . And he learned of finalities-- / Besides the grave”(Frost 124).  In “The Death of the Hired Man,” Mary exerts control over her husband Warren, convincing him to let Silas stay and showing her physical strength over him:

                            She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
                            To meet him in the doorway with the news
                            And put him on his guard. ‘Silas is back.’
                            She pushed him outward with her through the door
                            And shut it after her. (Frost 40).

As Robert Faggen observes, “Frost’s women seem as capable of asserting boundaries and exercising control as his men” (Kilcup 14).  Additionally, Frost gives women power through language, through being a controlling force behind gossip, a “feminine and feminizing form of oral literature” (Kilcup 121).  In a number of poems, including “The Witch of Coos,” “Frost places feminine and masculine voices in competition” (Kilcup 121).  Often, Frost allows the “mother tongue” to rule, providing the man with a weak or non-existent rebuttal to the female as in “The Witch of Coos” and “The Pauper Witch of Grafton.”  As Kilcup describes, “[In “The Pauper Witch of Grafton”] we see a positive enabling of a woman’s voice, frank, strong (in spite of the ending line), and intense” (Kilcup 123-4).  The strong female characters that Frost creates are capable of handling themselves in the world and cannot be easily controlled by their husbands when they experience freedom, unless their husbands take action to restrain them, rather than simply using words.

        While Frost’s female characters display a large amount of strength, many are forced to endure hard lives.  They often live in isolated locations on farms with their husbands and experience severe loneliness.  In the “Hill Wife” sequence, the poem “Loneliness” comments on the lack of connection with others.  The husband and wife are joyed and saddened by the coming and going of the birds.  The wife comments, “The truth being we are as much / Too glad for the one thing / As we are too sad for the other here-”(Frost 122).  The isolation and loneliness lead the husband and wife to try to find connection with nature.  Later in the “Hill Wife” sequence, the young woman runs away leaving her husband and their life together because “It was too lonely for her there, / And too wild” (Frost 124).

        The harsh life that many of the women in Frost’s poetry had to endure on the farms and outskirts of society is captured in the short story by Rose Terry Cooke, “The West Shetucket Railway.”

 When you bring to bear on these poor, weak souls, made for love and gentleness and bright outlooks[,the effects of]  the daily dullness of work, the brutality, stupidness, small crafts, and boorish tyranny of husbands, to whom they are tied beyond escape, what wonder is it that a third of all the female lunatics in our asylums are farmers’ wives? That domestic tragedies, even beyond the scope of a sensation novel, recur daily in these lonely houses, far beyond human help or hope?” (Kilcup 101).

In “The Fear,” the woman expresses the extreme loneliness: “This is a very, very lonely place” (Frost 92).  Many of the women would have been better satisfied by their life if they had had interaction with others, especially other females.  The lack of female presence hinders feminine communication, since they are unable to express themselves through gossip, which is an important escape from the monotony of life as a housewife.  In “A Servant to Servants,” the wife complains, “And you like it here? / I can see how you might. But I don’t know! / It would be different if more people came, / For then there would be business” (Frost 66).  The husband has the male companionship of all the hired men, yet the woman is troubled by the lack of female companionship and business to keep her mind off the harsh life and loneliness.  In the poem, “In the Home Stretch” after the workers leave after helping the couple move into their farm, the wife is troubled by the loneliness and emptiness of the house, becoming afraid.  The husband says, “I’ll light the fire for company for you; / You’ll not have any other company / Till Ed begins to get out on a Sunday” (Frost 112).  Often, the only companionship the woman has is that of her husband.  Since the husband often cannot fulfill the role of a missing female companion, many of these women become dissatisfied with their husbands and the lives they forced them to endure in these isolated conditions.

        In response to their discontentment with their lives and their lack of fulfillment in their relationships with their husbands and their roles as housewives, many of these women are led to fantasize about the woods and often, a strange male presence that lurks there, which they generally believe and “fear” will be the key to escaping from their harsh life and loneliness.

        In "Fear" the woman goes to the woods to find the man who is lurking around her house.  The husband appears to believe that she knows who it is, possibly that it is a man she was previously involved with.  The presence of the unknown man is causing a strain on their relationship by providing a male presence which the woman both fears and desires:

                            ‘There’s more in it than you’re inclined to say.
                            Did he look like–?’
                               ‘He looked like anyone.
                            I’ll never rest tonight unless I know.’ (Frost 90)

The woman is being disturbed by this man, letting it affect her marriage, and she wants to deal with it on her own.

                            ‘You’re not to come,’ she said. ‘This is my business.
                            If the time’s come to face it, I’m the one
                            To put it the right way. He’d never dare–
                            Listen! He kicked a stone. Hear that, hear that!
                            He’s coming towards us. Joel, go in– please.
                            Hark–I don’t hear him now. But please go in.’ (Frost 90)

        While the women in some respects want a strong male presence, they also want to be strong and independent and deal with things on their own.  The woman in “Fear” is aware that she must confront the man who is the source of her fears and desires, without the assistance of her husband.  Joel, however, wants to go with her because he seems afraid that she might run off with the stranger: “‘You mean you couldn’t understand his caring. / Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough– / Joel, I won’t– I won’t– I promise you’” (Frost 91). Joel’s wife acknowledges that the previous man in her life, who they believe this is, had strong feelings for her, and cared for her more than Joel does.  She also acknowledges that she has given thought to leaving, voicing her decision.  As if her saying “I won’t- I won’t” is not enough, she makes it a promise, forcing herself to keep her word to her husband to remain faithful.  Despite her promise, the woman is disappointed by the man that she meets at the edge of the woods:

                            ‘What do you want?’ she cried, and then herself
                            Was startled when an answer really came.
                            ‘Nothing.’ It came from well along the road. (Frost 91).

The woman is both startled by the fact that the male presence that she has been fantasizing about has materialized and also by the fact that he does not want anything to do with her.  In the end, she is disappointed because, seeing that he has a child with him, she realizes there is no hope of running off with him.  Despite her promise, deep in her heart, she still longed for an escape.

                            You won’t think anything. You understand?
                            You understand that we have to be careful.
                            This is a very, very lonely place.
                            Joel!’ She spoke as if she couldn’t turn.
                            The swinging lantern lengthened to the ground,
                            It touched, it struck, it clattered and went out. (Frost 92).

The woman wants some contact with other people and emphasizes her loneliness with the words “very, very lonely,” making it seem that even though she has her husband she feels alone.  She might have felt less alone with the referred to past lover, and her focus on him makes it appear that she, though married to Joel, has not moved on.  She is disappointed in the fact that it appears her past lover has moved on, not being the one walking around in the woods.  She is also disappointed by the fact that her fantasies of the strange man in the woods have not been fulfilled, and so her hope and the desires that keep her happy despite the monotony, disappear as the lantern light goes out.

        Much like the woman in “The Fear,” Emma Bovary fantasizes about a male who will take her away from her lonely life:

At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the port-holes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come; that day she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow. (Flaubert 51).

Similarly, the man she has been dreaming about never comes, and as time passes, her hope begins to fade much like the light of the lantern: “After the ennui of this disappointment her heart once more remained empty, and then the same series of days recommenced” (Flaubert 51).

        Despite the fact that their fantasies do not come true, many of the women in Frost’s poems continue to fantasize about other men and better lives outside the windows.  They are left unsatisfied by the males in their lives, typically husbands, and the monotony of their life as a housewife, and their fantasies are the only way they can endure their unhappiness.  Flaubert’s Emma Bovary fantasizes that first Rodolphe and then Léon will take her away:

She clung to Rodolphe. Her eyes, full of tears, flashed like flames beneath a wave; her breast heaved; he had never loved her so much, so that he lost his head and said:
“What is it? What do you wish?”
“Take me away,” she cried, “carry me off!” (Flaubert 158).

When Emma is no longer able to build her fantasies after she and Charles are deep in debt, she can no longer endure the harsh reality of her life and succumbs to committing suicide with arsenic, a reality that Cooke in “The West Shetucket Railway” states occurs repeatedly among farmers’ wives: “domestic tragedies, even beyond the scope of a sensation novel, recur daily in these lonely houses, far beyond human help or hope” (Kilcup 101).

        Most of Frost’s female characters only think about leaving but remain confined and faithful despite their desires.  However, “The Witch of Coös” was so dissatisfied with her husband that she took a lover, whom her husband killed, “a man he killed instead of me” (Frost 191).  Despite the lover’s death, the woman still held strong affection for the man, shown through her keeping his finger bone in her button box, holding the memento of their relationship.  The lover’s  presence in the house, as a skeleton, shows that his presence was still felt in the marriage despite his death.  There would always be a constant reminder as he banged on the attic door against the headboard, continuing to have an effect on their relationship in the bedroom.

While most remain faithful, those women in Frost’s poetry who run off, often run off to the woods.  In “An Oft-Repeated Dream,” the woman is called to at night by the tree outside scratching at her bedroom window:

                            It never had been inside the room,
                            And only one of the two
                            Was afraid in an oft-repeated dream
                            Of what the tree might do. (Frost 123).

The woman both fears and desires the tree and the wildness of the woods associated with it.  Her desire is shown through her repeated dreaming of it.  The tree’s repeated presence might lead her to act on her unhappiness and run away into the woods.  Her husband, however, is unaware of her discontent in their relationship.  The tree, which can also represent another male presence, makes its presence felt in “the room where they slept” (Frost 123), an important location in a marriage.  The woman considers running away, possibly to meet the stranger who had stopped at their house for food in the previous poem in the sequence, “The Smile,” which notes, “He’s watching from the woods as like as not” (Frost 123). In the last poem of the sequence, “The Impulse,” the woman goes into the woods with her husband and then runs away from him because living with him had been too lonely:

                        And once she went to break a bough
                        Of black alder.
                        She strayed so far she scarcely heard
                        When he called her–
                        And didn’t answer– didn’t speak–
                        Or return.
                        She stood, and then she ran and hid
                        In the fern. (Frost 124).

The woman in the “Hill Wife” poem runs to the woods to escape from her marriage.  Similarly, Emma Bovary runs off to the woods with Rodolphe, hoping to escape the loneliness of her marriage. “At first she felt stunned; she saw the trees, the paths, the ditches, Rodolphe, and she again felt the pressure of his arm, while the leaves rustled and the reeds whistled” (Flaubert 133).  In “A Dream Pang,” the young man urges the woman to come to the woods with him, yet she hesitates:

                            And to the forest edge you came one day
                            (This was my dream) and looked and pondered long,
                            But did not enter, though the wish was strong:
                            You shook your pensive head as who should say,
                            ‘I dare not– too far in his footsteps stray–
                            He must seek me would he undo the wrong.’ (Frost 25).

The man beckons the woman to the woods.  However, the woman says that the man must come for her if he wants to correct the wrong, possibly the wrong of her being with the wrong man.

        In his poetry, Frost explores the theme of dissatisfied women who seek escape.  The women are often unfulfilled in their relationships with their husbands, either because of a lack of personal connection and understanding as is the case in “Home Burial” or because of a physical satisfaction in the case of “The Witch of Coös.”  Many of the women are discontented with their lives, the isolated conditions they live in, and the roles they are confined to.  They long to experience the freedom that they see through the kitchen window and fantasize that a strange man will take them away to the woods where the constraints of society no longer apply.  Frost captures the essence of female thought in the late 19th and early 20th century as women sought to expand their roles and find fulfillment in their lives.  Frost’s repeated use of the theme of conflict in marriages because of female discontent shows his belief in its importance in improving marriages and male and female relations as a whole.  As Kilcup says in Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition, Frost provides a subjective yet sympathetic sounding board for the plights of farmers’ wives early in his career.  Using folk material as the source for many of his dramatic works, Kilcup notes: “Frost’s investment in a poetics of empathy here is most evident when we consider how he transformed the original folk material” (Kilcup 123).   In the “The Pauper Witch of Grafton,” “the most striking aspects of Frost’s transformation of the original materials are his assignment of subjectivity (and sympathy) to Sarah Weeks” (Kilcup 123-4).  As his career became more public, particularly after the publication of his first three volumes of poetry, his tendencies shifted, and he retreated from his position of providing a strong female voice and revealing his strong sympathies for these discontented women.  However Frost’s awareness of females, present particularly in his early poems, including “A Servant to Servants,” “Home Burial,” “In the Home Stretch” and “Death of a Hired Man,” remains.  However, as Kilcup notes, “Maple” marks Frost’s decided transformation away from his strong female sympathies, “his movement toward a self-conception as detached, masculine (lyric) professional poet, rather than dispersed, feminine (narrative) storyteller-gossip” (Kilcup 137), a  possible reason for Frost’s distancing from Amy Lowell and his female contemporaries. However, despite his transition to a less sympathetic poet, it is apparent that Frost feels there is a universal discontent among the female gender, probably caused by the society’s beliefs that a woman’s place is in the home and not on equal standing with men.  Ultimately, his writing parallels the feelings being expressed in society during this time period when women were striving for equality and fulfillment.
 
 

                                      Bibliography

Flaubert, Gustav. Madame Bovary. London: Aldine Press, 1957.
Frost, Robert. Frost Collected Poem, Prose, and Plays. Canada: Penguin Putnam In, 1984.
Kilcup, Karen L. Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition. Michigan: University of Michigan,1998.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Amy Dessureault
Robert Frost: A Poet of Contradictions

        In the collection, A Further Range, Robert Frost has again shown that he is a poet of contradictions.  In previous volumes, Frost comments about actions he desires to take, but there is generally always a contradiction between how he desires to act and how he acts.  For example in “Sound of Trees,” Frost comments, “I shall set forth for somewhere, / I shall make the reckless choice” (150); however, Frost has not taken the action and is only saying that he will take the action.  Frost appears to be unwilling to take any definite action which is reckless or risks the criticism of others.  Repeatedly in his poetry, Frost is unwilling to admit his position, and instead sits on the fence.  Often when he appears to give the reader a glimpse of his view of the world and his opinions, he undercuts it, providing the reader with doubt as to the strength of his beliefs.  His unwillingness to take a definite position might stem from a lack of self-assurance and self-identity.  Repeatedly, Frost tries to define his identity through his poetry.  He writes about names and questions the significance of names, exploring the natural phenomenon of frost in “Mending Wall.”  Similarly, in many of his poems, for example “A Hillside Thaw,” he seeks to define himself as a poet, oftentimes writing about an internal struggle between his masculine and feminine characteristics and styles of writing which are in conflict.

        In A Further Range, Frost’s insecurity remains as he debates in his poetry whether or not to write about the political realm; however, Frost contradicts his previous desires and takes what in his mind would be considered a risk and involves himself in the political debate.  However, while writing about politics, Frost, at points, gives clear criticism, yet at other times, undercuts what he says.  Up until the publication of his collection A Further Range, Frost had insisted that he would not write poems that involved themselves in politics, yet Frost contradicts the way he desires to act as a poet by writing about politics in his poetry in this section.  In the poem “In Divés Dive,” Frost directly states that he does not want to become involved in discussions of politics, stating: “But still I am steady and unaccusing” and “It is nothing to me who runs the Dive” (283).  He links the poem to the political realm through the use of the word declaration and basically says it does not matter to him who is the president or who is in charge.  While Frost states that he is going to resist involving himself in the political discussion, it appears that he again debates the issue of writing poetry about politics in “Build Soil:”

                             The question is whether they’ve reached a depth
                             Of desperation that would warrant poetry’s
                             Leaving love’s alternations, joy and grief,
                             The weather’s alternations, summer and winter,
                             Our age-long theme, for the uncertainty
                             Of judging who is a contemporary liar–
                             Who in particular, when all alike
                             Get called as much in clashes of ambition.
                             Life may be tragically bad, and I
                             Make bold to sing it so, but do I dare
                             Name names and tell you who by name is wicked? (290)

         Frost admits he is unwilling to risk himself and his poetry career by naming names or disclosing what is wrong in politics, yet he discusses the harsh realities of life, presenting a clear image of the Great Depression and its affects on the American people in “A Lone Striker”:

                             There was a law of God or man
                             That on the one who came too late
                             The gate for half an hour be locked,
                             His time be lost, his pittance docked.
                             He stood rebuked and unemployed. (249).

         In the poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost captured another view of the unemployment present during the Depression, as men wandered the country seeking work:

                             Nothing on either side was said.
                             They knew they had but to stay their stay
                             And all their logic would fill my head:
                             As that I had no right to play
                             With what was another man’s work for gain.
                             My right might be love but theirs was need.
                             And where the two exist in twain.
                             Theirs was the better right–agreed. (252)

         However, while showing the harsh realities of life during the early 1930s, Frost still claims that he does not want to become involved in discussions of politics and prefers:

                                . . .to sing safely in the realm
                             Of types, composite and imagined people:
                             To affirm there is such a thing as evil
                             Personified, but ask to be excused
                             From saying on a jury ‘Here’s the guilty.’ (290)

         Yet by 1932, he begins writing about politics in his poetry.  He seems finally to take the risk that he always claims he will take but never does.  It appears that he has decided that the Depression and the state of America reached a level where he wanted to contribute encouragement.  Frost wanted people to work to support themselves, saying in “Build Soil:” “Plant, breed, produce, / But what you raise or grow, why feed it out, Eat it or plow it under where it stands / To build the soil” (295).  Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cabinet originally created programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority to support farmers who were struggling to continue farming their farms.  However after reelection in 1936, Roosevelt’s New Deal policies changed, and he established the welfare system and social security.  Though a Democrat, like Roosevelt, Frost fought against the changes in Roosevelt’s politics:

                             Do I submit to being supplied by him
                             As the more economical producer,
                             More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
                             No. I unostentatiously move off
                             Far enough for my thought flow to resume.
                             Thought product and food product are to me
                             Nothing compared to the producing of them. (296).

Frost spurs the American people not to fall into the idleness of accepting the easy handout, criticizing Roosevelt in “To a Thinker” saying:

                             The last step taken found your heft
                             Decidedly upon the left.
                             One more would throw you on the right.
                             Another still– you see your plight.
                             You call this thinking, but it’s walking.
                             Not even that, it’s only rocking. (298)

        Roosevelt’s shift in policies greatly upset Frost to the point that it is questionable whether he stooped to the level of criticizing Roosevelt personally.  Both the poems “Waspish” and “One Guess” make references to a physical frame supported by wires and “a leg akimbo” (282), which could be referring to Roosevelt’s physical handicap.  While it is not clear whether Frost criticized Roosevelt personally, he strongly criticized Roosevelt and his policies, particularly the welfare system.  In the version of “Provide, Provide” which he read before certain congressmen, he argued against the welfare state, saying:

                             Better to go down dignified
                             With boughten friendship at your side
                             Than none at all.  Provide, provide!
                             Or someone will provide for you. (280)

 While Frost criticized the safety net that the welfare state provided, he was, you could argue, a hypocrite.  He had a safety net of his own, a $800 per month stipend from his grandfather that provided him with the initial jump start for his poetry career.
 Though different in the sense of touching political aspects, the poetry of A Further Range is not that different from Frost’s previous collections.  Frost continues to undercut his poetry.  For example in “Build Soil,” he undercuts the ending where Meliboeus doesn’t follow Tityrus’ advice, being discouraged because Tityrus is wiser.  “You’re far too fast and strong/ For my mind to keep working in your presence” (296).   Through his political discussions, Frost’s aim is not to manipulate politics but to convince people to change themselves and adapt or resist the world situation.  In this sense, he only touches the edge of the political realm, not totally going against his desire to stay away from “naming names,” though at points he breaks this with his criticism of Roosevelt.