Although the titles of Robert Frost’s collections of poetry, including North of Boston, appear to ground his work in a precise location and a known community, the poems themselves belie any secure sense of geography and any secure sense of attachment. Many of the poems were, in fact, composed in Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and they reveal an acute awareness of British, as well as American, literary traditions and ideals. This essay looks at how Frost created the New England of his poems, subtly establishing lines of continuity with British and American Romanticism while simultaneously harbouring profound philosophical doubts about inherited models of poetic subjectivity and imagination. The place of poetry, for Frost, is seen to be a place in which the play of mind is, itself, the most pressing subject matter.
Robert Frost might seem an unlikely candidate for a collection of essays concerned with Romantic and post-Romantic models of selfhood and subjectivity. He was a far less flamboyant figure than some of the poets who come readily to mind in the context of “modelling the self”—Byron, Yeats and Pound, for instance. He was not a poet who indulged in grandiose displays of self-fashioning and heroic myth-making. Frost often seemed at pains, in his life and in his work, to stress his unyielding, unchanging ordinariness: the bluff, plain-speaking farmer, making do with a life of simple virtues and moral truisms. Until he left America and settled in England in 1912, it looked as if his literary reputation might rest on a handful of stories and articles published in Poultryman and Poultryfarmer. There is, of course, a very obvious model of identity that has come to be associated with Robert Frost, and one that Frost was happy enough to acknowledge and promote: Robert Frost as New England poet, the natural successor to Emerson and Thoreau, a poet intent on reviving the pastoral tradition, grounding his poems in the farming country north of Boston, and tuning his ear to the rhythms of local speech.
We can see now that the New England identity certainly was a model, and one that was carefully constructed and scrupulously maintained for nearly sixty years. Robert Frost’s poetic identity, though, is far more complex and protean than the New England model admits. Living in England, and regularly visiting London, between 1912 and 1915, Frost was well placed to observe and take part in the critical ferment accompanying the rise of modernism, to engage with the poetic manifestos of the imagist movement and the aesthetic ideals of the Bloomsbury Group, and to begin to fashion a distinctive poetic style inspired by both British and American influences. What emerges from Frost’s early encounter with literary modernism is a deep and prolonged interest in the philosophy of mind: in the workings of consciousness, the acquisition of knowledge, the shaping of subjectivity. If Frost deservedly belongs to a Yankee New England tradition, he occupies a far more compelling role in the larger space of post-Romantic thought and culture. The New England identity was a convenient fiction and one that proved to be immensely popular and lucrative, as well; it gave Frost an imagined location in which to contemplate some of the fundamental encounters of mind and world in his work, but it also served to obscure Frost’s much larger concern with problems of perception and knowledge, especially those associated with the legacy of Romanticism.
Many of Frost’s shorter lyrics might be regarded as cognitive models which variously present the mind-world relationship and explore the possibilities of creative interaction between them. An excellent example is “Tree at My Window,” from West-Running Brook (1928):
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
The preposition in the title is telling: not through or outside my window, but at my window. The physical nearness of the tree is at one with the intimacy of address. But at the same time as the poem seeks to efface distinctions between self and world, it just as surely insists upon them in those possessive first-person pronouns: “my window…my sash.” We might be tempted to say that the play of mind is, itself, the subject of the poem. The opening line reveals the mind in both its denotative and its transformative capacities: it registers the separate objects of perception, window and tree, and at the same time it creates a new kind of tree: a window tree. The mid-line caesura sets up an internal reflection, a model of the mind’s own reflective tendencies: “Tree at my window, window tree.” If the poem quickly acknowledges our human fears and insecurities in times of darkness, our instinct for separateness and demarcation, it also recognises the contrary need for engagement and involvement in what lies out there, outside the boundary of the window.
The poem reflects, as well, on its own metaphor-making impulses, its own compulsion to make sense of the world through metaphor. In the second stanza, the tree is a fantastic, surrealist “dream-head lifted out of the ground,” a cloud with leaves that speak in tongues. Here, the tree is like the self, a dreamer and a talker, but the self asserts its superiority over that which is vague and diffuse and lacking profundity. In stanza three, though, the parallel syntax suggests a way of seeing that is now less fanciful, and much more urgent and direct. There is a pause and a turning marked by the conjunction and by the renewed address, as the poem this time acknowledges how the self is like the tree:
But, tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
The diminished line at the end of the stanza gives little away, but it hints at psychic disturbance, at a loss of rationality and mental stability, and this suggestion persists, despite the relatively light-hearted closing stanza and the willingness to let destiny run its course: “That day she put our heads together,/ Fate had her imagination about her” (13-14). Imagination—that key Romantic concept—is treated whimsically and yet its appearance here links the poem to a philosophical context reaching back to Coleridge and beyond. The poem restates a fundamental Romantic idea of correspondence between inner and outer states, turning away from transcendental notions of that relationship towards a more prosaic and accessible metaphor: the weather. Form is never redundant in Frost, and here the expansion and diminishment of lines catches the play of mind. Each stanza appropriately rhymes both inside and outside, with a middle couplet and two outriders, abba cddc effe, but the final stanza, with typically Frostian felicity, rhymes inside and outside and all together, using a resilient er ending to signify both difference and likeness—together / her / outer, weather—and even smuggling in an internal rhyme in the closing lines: “Your head so much concerned with outer,/ Mine with inner, weather” (15-16).
It should come as no surprise to learn that “Tree at My Window” is one of Paul Muldoon’s favourite poems by Frost. It has the playful audacity and puzzling obliqueness that have come to be associated with the Irish poet’s work. As Rachel Buxton shows in her excellent account of Frost’s influence on recent Northern Irish poetry, the American poet has been a major presence in Muldoon’s work since the publication of his first collection of poems New Weather in 1973. It is more surprising, perhaps, to find such a poem in a body of work that by 1928 had come to be regarded chiefly for its narrative and dramatic properties, with its reputation resting on poems like “After Apple-Picking,” “Home Burial,” “Mending Wall,” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” all in the collection titled North of Boston, published in London in 1914 and New York in 1915. It is clear, though, that those philosophical problems inherent in Romantic and post-Romantic theory preoccupied Frost throughout his career. “Tree at My Window” is one of a number of poems in which Frost appears to be positing a fundamental question about the nature of consciousness: how to retain the separate integrity of mind and world while simultaneously recognising the creative interaction between them. In this respect, Frost might be loosely associated with neo-Kantian philosophy, holding to the essential idea of the creative intelligence, the self as the redeemer of chaos and disorder, the maker of pattern and significance. But the environment in Frost’s poems is often resistant and impervious to thought, and sometimes the poems undercut their own creative desire with an ironic, deflationary gesture.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that Frost has sometimes been placed in a tradition of American philosophical pragmatism that runs from William James to Richard Rorty. The most enterprising and challenging critical studies of Frost have both situated his work in relation to post-Kantian epistemology and simultaneously demonstrated a previously unacknowledged modernist dimension in his thinking. Frank Lentricchia’s Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self (1975) and Richard Poirier’s Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977) have effectively transformed Frost’s critical reputation, and their high level of philosophical debate has been carried on in critical studies such as Steven Frattali’s Person, Place and World: A Late-Modern Reading of Robert Frost (2002). Frost certainly knew the work of William James, the Harvard philosopher, brother of Henry and the coiner of that much overused term, “stream of consciousness,” but Frost was reading so much else throughout his long career, including the writings of Charles Darwin and Henri Bergson. As his work develops, it seems to be pulled between the language of scientific naturalism on the one hand and the language of creative idealism on the other. It might be more precise, then, to think of Frost as a poet who often draws on contrary philosophical tendencies, a writer with a versatile repertoire of subject positions and perspectives within his own work.
We can see Frost’s interest in subjectivity and the problematic nature of consciousness taking shape in some very early poems written long before rural New England becomes his poetic base. As Tyler Hoffman has demonstrated in his illuminating account of Frost’s political sensibility, some of the earliest poems include reflections on the lives of mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he was himself an industrial worker in the early 1890s. “The Mill City” complicates any easy account of Frost’s poetic development by revealing a strongly urban sensibility at the very outset of his career and suggesting that the pastoral mode was not the only road Frost might have taken. The sonnet imagines mill workers being drowned in the stream that drives the machinery. The octave and the sestet are used effectively to capture both the speaker’s sense of remoteness and difference from the workers (“I could not fathom what their life could be– ”(3)) and his abiding sense of solidarity with them (“Yet I supposed that they had all one hope/ With me…” (9)). The conjunction "Yet" marks the volta in Frost’s sonnet, but the real turn arrives a line later:
I would go out,
When happier ones drew in for fear of doubt,
Breasting their current, resolute to cope
With what thoughts they compelled who thronged the street,
Less to the sound of voices than of feet.
That key phrase, “I would go out,” provides the starting point for so much of Frost’s later work. It underwrites a major paradigm in his poetry: not just a desire to know and understand the world, but a willingness to confront despair. “The thoughts” that these mill workers compel is hinted at in the downcast attitude of the closing line. Significantly, this early sonnet is as much about the problem of how to “cope” with thought, as it is about the material conditions of American mill workers. But “going out” has a formal equivalent in terms of a willingness to experiment with sentence sounds and with what constitutes a line of poetry. There is a clear “going out” in terms of the line. Despite the appearance of a closing couplet, the conclusion of “The Mill City” effectively begins in line 10 and gathers momentum through the unwinding of a single complex sentence. This “going out” becomes a hallmark in some of Frost’s best-known sonnets, including “Into My Own” and “Acquainted with the Night.”
Frost’s first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, was published in England in 1913, and most of the well-known poems in his second book, North of Boston, were written in Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire. We can see Frost in these early poems keeping open the communication lines with both British and American Romanticism, while at the same time packing his work with classical literary allusions, though far less explicitly than Eliot and Pound in the poetry they were writing at this time. The titles of the volumes that follow North of Boston suggest a continuity of vision and a consistent poetic locale: Mountain Interval, New Hampshire, West Running Brook, but the poems themselves are often noticeably lacking in any secure sense of geography and any secure sense of attachment to place. Place often seems to function as the backdrop for the kind of encounter Frost likes to imagine in “Into My Own” or “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” where the trees take on an uneasy symbolic, rather than naturalistic, presence.
“Into My Own” was obviously a critically important poem for Frost. It was the first poem in his first book, A Boy’s Will. It was first published in the New England Magazine with the title “Into Mine Own” (an echo of Psalm 35). The revised title can be read as a colloquial expression—coming into one’s own in the sense of growing up and achieving independence—but also as an excursion into the uncertain places of the self, a journey in which the speaker is prompted to test the limits of knowledge and experience:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ‘twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
Elsewhere in Frost’s work, the desire to enter the darkness is met by a commitment to communal or social responsibilities, and the writing carries on, having weighed up its possible choices and alternatives. This early poem initially seems stubborn and headstrong, perhaps in keeping with the title of the volume, A Boy’s Will, taken from Longfellow’s 1858 poem, “My Lost Youth”: “A boy’s will is the wind’s will,/And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts”. But the closing line offers no guarantee that strength of conviction makes for truth. The word “Only” seems to qualify “thought” as well as “sure.” A weaker line—“I only thought that it was true”—hovers around it. In any case, the speaker’s suppositions are based only on an idle wish, a journey he seems unlikely ever to make as the repeated subjunctives suggest. The speaker has some growing up to do and will eventually reappear in Frost’s work, having been acquainted with the night.
Like other Frost poems, “Into My Own” has a strongly American emphasis on individual venture and self-reliance, perhaps playfully and ironically undercutting these Emersonian ideals, but it also looks back unmistakably to Dante and Shakespeare. It follows the Shakespearean sonnet form in its typography but gives us rhyming couplets all the way through. At the point where we might expect a turn, it explicitly denies one, establishing a happy agreement between form and meaning: “I do not see why I should e’er turn back” (9; emphasis added). “The edge of doom” in line 4 comes from Shakespeare’s sonnet 116. The speaker seems unimpressed with the idea that “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/ But bears it out even to the edge of doom”. So often, Frost uses the sonnet not for reaffirming the place of love in the world, but for intensifying the isolation and separateness of the individual mind confronting utter emptiness.
A Boy’s Will contains some other notable sonnets. Frost claimed that “Mowing,” probably written in the spring of 1900, was the best poem in the book. Part of its appeal is that it asserts the value of its own pastoral vision within a tradition that goes all the way back to Virgil, subtly echoing Shakespeare, Marvell and Wordsworth. It shows a highly self-conscious preoccupation with the making of poetry, as well as the making of hay, as the striking infinitive verb at the end of the poem declares: “My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make” (14). The motivating impulse behind the poem is the idea that poetry is a labour of love: it must be sought and earned. For Frost, as well as for Marvell, the mower with his long scythe is both lover and labourer, resourcefully making hay while the sun shines:
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
Two definitions of poetry (or two models of creativity) vie for attention here. One tends towards the realm of idle fantasy and the “easy gold” of ready-made mythology, while the other is factual and pragmatic. Lentricchia claims that the “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf” is a reference to the fin de siècle Celtic Twilight poems of W.B. Yeats. Frost, it seems, politely declined an invitation to attend Yeats’s Monday night creative writing sessions at which the great man would tinker with the poems of lesser mortals. In between these two models of poetry—the indulgently Romantic and the strictly naturalistic—Frost proposes a tentative, exploratory engagement with the world, a thoughtful acknowledgement of both vision and actuality. This is a post-Romantic poem in which the only sound beside the wood is a whisper, and even that has to be worked at and teased into being. The poem highlights its own epistemological dilemmas, its own fraught exploration of what can and cannot be known: “I knew not well myself” (3). The poem’s pervasive undecidability is brilliantly rendered in its own internal reflections, as it cuts in a sweeping, scythe-like movement across lines 4 and 5: “Perhaps it was something…/ Something perhaps.” The indeterminate “something,” teasingly joined with an apparently hopeful but ultimately empty qualifier, “perhaps,” looks forward to one of the greatest of Frost’s cognitive quest poems, “For Once, Then, Something.”
In contrast to the muted acoustics of “Mowing,” Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper” offers a generous embracing of sound: “The music in my heart I bore,/ Long after it was heard no more”. Lentricchia gives extensive consideration to “The Solitary Reaper” as a precursor poem, claiming that Frost inserts his speaker as worker rather than observer precisely to undermine the spectatorial, leisurely attitude implicit in Wordsworth’s poem (Lentricchia 1994: 98). However, Frost’s poem seems to work in a much quieter way than Lentricchia suggests, tentatively establishing relations with a range of both British and American works. If “Mowing” is a post-Romantic poem, it is also in its unassuming way a post-Darwinian poem, in which “pale orchises” and “a bright green snake” (12) are signifiers of a world in which Wordsworth’s “nature’s holy plan” has been supplanted by nature’s unfathomable processes of selection, reproduction and adaptability. Not surprisingly, then, the poem opts for the idiom of whisper rather than confident speech, and for limited perception rather than Wordsworthian revelation or Emersonian transcendence. In its insistence on the commonality of love and work and truth, the poem looks back to Henry Thoreau and his pronouncements on the necessity of labour for both farmer and scholar. Steady labour, Thoreau advises, “is the best method of removing palaver out of one’s style both of talking and writing.” The scholar who has laboured with his hands will find that his lines are “more musical and true, than his freest but idle fancy could have furnished”. The sestet of Frost’s sonnet pragmatically cautions against any tendency to exceed the truth of things as they are, but the expression is characteristically teasing: “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak” (9). Frost himself encouraged the notion that a definition of poetry might be found in the penultimate line: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows” (13), in which fact and dream, labour and sweetness, are held in fragile balance. At the same time, the teasing obliquity of the sonnet seems to place a question mark over the wisdom and certitude of Thoreau. It is almost as if the poem leaves off trying to make too much of its own potential meanings and settles for a circumscribed art of the unknown and the unstated: “My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make” (14).
Such a tentative art required a new model of lyric expressiveness, and Frost’s own description of “Mowing” as “a talk song” is a revealing indication of how he skillfully manipulates the resources of the sonnet form. “Mowing” is one of the best and earliest examples of what Frost came to call “the sound of sense,” in which the patterns of vernacular speech are crossed with the patterns of poetic metre. The sonnet is the ideal model in which to explore “the mingling of sense-sound and word-accent,” providing Frost with exactly the right combination of metrical constraint and vocal freedom that he was seeking (655). But only two lines in the sonnet have ten syllables; the others range from 11 to 13 syllables. Voice, not metre, determines scansion; or rather, voice pulling away from metre determines scansion. Frost also goes against the grain by sedulously avoiding the neat division of the sonnet into three quatrains and a couplet in the common English variant of the form, and by furnishing the poem with a highly unusual distribution of rhymes (abcabdecdefgfg). The irregularity in line length and in rhyme deepens the impression of the poem discarding the usual conventions of the sonnet, as well as resourcefully employing them.
Once we are accustomed, as readers, to the subtle ploys by which Frost turns a seemingly innocent, almost childlike, lyric like “Tree at My Window” into a sustained meditation on inner and outer weather, we can begin to see how other poems have as their motivating impulse a profound interest in the play of mind. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is frequently read as a parable of temptation and duty, though this hardly begins to do justice to the lyric seductiveness of Frost’s snow-filled sylvan nocturne: “These woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ But I have promises to keep…” (13-14). It used to be a commonplace piety in American New Criticism that the rocking tetrameters of the closing lines and the full rhymes resourcefully arrived at in the final stanza (aabc bbcb dded eeee) were a guarantee of the poem’s continuing commitment to life. It was possible to hear the clip-clop of the little horse’s hooves starting up again: “And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep” (15-16). A more sceptical, post-war generation of readers came to read the same lines as disturbingly indicative of a weary, tormented death wish: “And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.”
The intense critical scrutiny given to the closing lines accounts for the peculiarity of the opening line going unnoticed: “Whose woods these are I think I know” (1). We are presented at once, and in very stark terms, with the spectacle of a thinking subject taking stock of the world. Thinking and knowing are compounded here, but in a way that undermines the security of both. “I think I know” is different in kind from either I think or I know. This uncertainty of mind contrasts markedly with instinctive animal intelligence: ‘He gives his harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake” (9-10). The poem clearly offers more than a parable of New England Puritan fears of what might dwell in the woods. Behind it is the troubled pause of Hamlet thinking: “Ay, there’s the rub,/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil/ Must give us pause”. Once again, Frost puts the play of mind at the very forefront of his enquiry. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” takes its place in a long tradition of poems in which to think is immediately to contemplate annihilation. Andrew Marvell interrupts his ironic meditation on the cold joys of the grave with a self-conscious display of thinking: “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace”. Frost’s meditation is post-Romantic, nearer in its poignant relinquishing of nocturnal beauty to Keats: “then on the Shore/ Of the wide world I stand alone and think/ Till Love and Fame to Nothingness do sink.—”.
Frost’s other frequently anthologized parable, “The Road Not Taken,” similarly involves much more than the moral truisms for which it is perennially celebrated. It appears to derive from hard-won experience, ruefully recorded in the language of living speech:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
In fact, the poem has its origins in “th’ untrodden ways” (1) of Wordsworth’s Lucy. The paradoxical, contradictory assertions of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad, inviting us to think again, to see the mysterious rather than the mundane, shapes the puzzling, equivocating idiom of Frost’s rural lyric. In both poems, there are hidden depths, but what is characteristic of Frost is the simultaneous assertion of knowledge and realization of doubt: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/ I doubted if I should ever come back” (14-15). Wordsworth’s poem ends with a declaration of radical subjectivity which is, in itself, a revelation: “But she is in her Grave, and Oh!/ The difference to me” (11-12). Frost’s lyric ends with a radical fracturing of subjectivity, an undermining of its own confident assertions, and a declaration of difference that appears to make no difference at all: “and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference” (19-20).
If Keats and Wordsworth provide the impulse for a post-Romantic poetry of self-interrogating consciousness and uncertain knowledge, so too does the poet Frost most keenly admired and emulated. Shelley’s “To Jane—The Recollection” gives Frost a model of harmonious correspondence between earth and sky, an opportunity to reflect upon reflection:
We paused beside the pools that lie
Under the forest bough–
Each seemed as ‘twere, a little sky
Gulfed in a world below…
Frost’s “Spring Pools” invokes the “Elysian glow” of Shelley’s poem, and it likewise sets up a contrast between the calm waters in the wood and the poet’s agitated mind, but it pushes the contrast to a point of radical disjuncture. The poem brings together in its two stanzas two different models of reflection: the natural reflection of the sky in pools of water and the human reflection of the mind as it perceives the world about it. The opening is contemplative, seemingly full of Romantic promise, but the impending loss of both watery pools and spring flowers brings a note of dissonance into the poem. There is a slightly jarring verbal collision in line 3, where transitive and non-transitive uses of the verbs are confused:
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone…
Both pools and flowers might be said to shiver, but can flowers chill, as distinct from being chill or chilled? That odd grammatical linkage points to a flaw in the speaker’s way of apprehending natural process. This is a speaker who has never had a mind of winter, for whom pathetic fallacy is an habitual mode of perception. His psychology is such that he cannot contemplate summer without thoughts of darkness; nor can he calmly accept the seeming briskness and efficiency of the ecological system. The language of scientific naturalism, of roots and foliage and buds, vies with the language of Romantic idealism. The speaker’s command to the trees tends towards absurdity—“Let them think twice before they use their powers” (9)—but it serves to expose his own evident failure to think twice. It suggests a failure of vision, an overweening attempt to impose the reflective capacities of the mind on a natural process that has its own ineluctable movements and mechanisms, beautifully and delicately captured in “These flowery waters and these watery flowers” (11). It is the speaker’s sense of exclusion from that ecological equilibrium that prompts a cry of complaint, welling up into what sounds like narcissistic arrogance but finally melting into pathos with “snow that melted only yesterday” (12).
It is difficult, too, to get the measure of the voice that we hear in the sublimely portentous but ultimately self-effacing poem, “The Most of It,” though Michael O’Neill has ventured an apt description of its tone as “calculated bathos”. It helps to know that the original title of the poem was “Making the Most of It”. The earlier title cautions us against seeing the closing four words of the poem—“and that was all”—simply in terms of disappointment and diminishment. It also gives the poem a more obviously existentialist appeal. This is one of a number of poems by Frost in which a lonely, metaphysically homeless speaker tries to make sense of the universe through metaphor: that is, the speaker seeks to overcome the consuming nothingness of existence by constructing a model of meaningful dialogue between mind and world:
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
The poem takes us all the way back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the story of Narcissus and Echo, and it also takes its place in a long tradition of poems attuned to echoes, including “The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo” by Gerard Manley Hopkins and “Man and the Echo” by W.B. Yeats. The most striking intertextual affinities, however, are clearly with Wordsworth. The appearance of some “embodiment” in line 10 of the poem moves us towards a moment of Romantic revelation. The word “talus” (11), describing the sloping side of a cliff, is an old French word (probably dating back to the seventeenth century), but in other respects the landscape is modelled on the cliffs and islands of Winander in Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad, “There Was a Boy,” written in 1798, included among Wordsworth’s “Poems of the Imagination,” and later incorporated into Book V of the 1805 Prelude:
There was a Boy, ye knew him well, ye Cliffs
And Islands of Winander! many a time
At evening, when the stars had just begun
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering Lake,
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely, palm to palm, and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.—And they would shout
Across the wat’ry Vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call...
The temptation, perhaps, is to see Frost’s poem as a post-Romantic parody of the search for correspondence between self and place, a slightly comic critique of what Keats famously termed “the egotistical sublime” in Wordsworth. To read it in this way, however, is to simplify both Frost and Wordsworth. The strongest examples of intertextuality always make for an enhanced and invigorated reading of both the host text and its precursor, and this is true of the two poems in question here. In Wordsworth’s poem, the boy is the fortunate recipient of nature’s ministry: “the voice of mountain torrents” is “carried far into his heart” and “the visible scene” enters “unawares into his mind” (408-10). The reciprocity of mind and world is beautifully suspended in the reflective image of an “uncertain heaven, received/ Into the bosom of the steady Lake” (411). Wordsworth’s “all” (410) is testimony to that moment of harmonious integration; it remains secure in memory, unvanquished even by the subsequent revelation of the boy’s early death. In contrast, Frost’s “all” (2) might seem like an anti-climax, but it comes at the end of a magnificent performance by nature, and the poem prevails upon its readers to take it for what it is—to make the most of it. Frost shares with Wordsworth the pathos of that need to “cry out on life” for recognition and affirmation, but he also demonstrates his own tough-minded American resilience, and one of the places that he gets it from is Henry Thoreau’s Walden (1854). As Richard Poirier has shown (168), that stridently American “great buck,” an unlikely visitor in Wordsworth’s menagerie, comes bounding out of Thoreau’s Walden:
When, as was commonly the case, I had none to commune with, I used to raise the echoes by striking with a paddle on the side of my boat, filling the surrounding woods with circling and dilating sound, stirring them up as the keeper of the menagerie his wild beasts, until I elicited a growl from every wooded vale and hillside. 174
O’Neill has felicitously described “the great buck” (16) in Frost’s poem as “an unexpectedly disturbed and disturbing presence,” and he goes on to show how “The Most of It” serves as an exemplary instance of “the dialogue that takes place between Romantic and post-Romantic poems” .
Notwithstanding the critical reputation he still seems to have as a purveyor of cracker-barrel wisdom and moral platitudes, Frost is a poet of surprising philosophical subtlety and complexity. Within the broad domain of Romantic and post-Romantic thought, his work can be seen to refashion and replenish inherited models of subjectivity and imagination, often taking the very processes of perception and comprehension as its starting point. Wallace Stevens might well be the poet that Frost has most in common with, in terms of helping to give a new direction to modern American poetry. Frost once told Stevens, “The problem with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac” (Lentricchia 153). This conjures up a rather quaint and endearing image of Stevens as an antique dealer, running a slightly up-market version of Yeats’s “foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” but it points effectively to an excessively ornate and decorative quality that some readers have objected to in Stevens’ work. Stevens is reputed to have taken Frost to task for writing about “subjects”—good old fashioned subjects that most self-respecting modernists had ditched a long time since. Frost did not mind being misunderstood in that way; it was an indication, perhaps, that his habitual sleight of hand had worked its tricks effectively. If we are looking for poets who articulate for us the continuities, but also the fractures, in that complicated transition from Romanticism to modernism, we can do worse than be readers of Frost.
Stephen Regan is Professor of English and Head of the Department of English Studies at Durham University, where he is also Director of the Basil Bunting Centre for Modern Poetry. His publications include Irish Writing: An Anthology of Irish Writing 1789-1939 (Oxford UP, 2004), The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader (Routledge, 2001), The Eagleton Reader (Blackwell, 1998), The Politics of Pleasure: Aesthetics and Cultural Theory (Open UP, 1992), and Philip Larkin (Macmillan, 1992). He is the founding editor of The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, published annually by Oxford University Press. His latest book (co-edited with Richard Allen) is Irelands of the Mind: Memory and Identity in Modern Irish Culture (Cambridge Scholars, 2008).
Robert Frost, Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, eds. Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson 1-4. Subsequent quotations from Frost’s poetry and prose are taken from this edition referred to by line number and page number, respectively, in the text.
Rachel Buxton, Robert Frost and Northern Irish Poetry.
Tyler Hoffman, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Longfellow 8.
William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al 1962.
Frank Lentricchia, Modernist Quartet: 97.
William Wordsworth, William Wordsworth: The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill 31-2. Subsequent quotations from this edition unless otherwise stated.
William Wordsworth, The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, eds. E. De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, “Lines Written in Early Spring”, 22.
Henry David Thoreau, Collected Poems and Essays, ed. Elizabeth Witherell Hall 84.
See Hamlet, 3, I, 72-4.
Andrew Marvell, Andrew Marvell, eds. Frank Kermode and Keith Walker 32.
John Keats, John Keats: The Major Works. Ed. Elizabeth Cook 169.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, eds. Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill 53-6.
Michael O’Neill, “Romantic Legacies in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry.” Romanticism and its Legacies: Public Lecture Series. Durham University. 12 December 2006.
Richard Poirer, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing 161.
John Keats, John Keats: Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings 147.
O’Neill, The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900 5.
W. B. Yeats, W. B. Yeats: The Major Works, ed. Edward Larrissy 40.
- Buxton, Rachel. Robert Frost and Northern Irish Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.
- Frattali, Steven. Person, Place, and World: A Late-Modern Reading of Robert Frost. Victoria, BC: U of Victoria P, 2002.
- Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays. Eds. Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1995.
- Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 2001.
- Keats, John. John Keats: The Major Works. Ed. Elizabeth Cook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
- Keats, John. John Keats: Selected Letters. 1970. Ed. Robert Gittings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.
- Lentricchia, Frank. Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1975.
- Lentricchia, Frank. Modernist Quartet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Poetical Works of Longfellow. London: Oxford UP, 1957.
- Marvell, Andrew. Andrew Marvell. Oxford Authors. Eds. Frank Kermode and Keith Walker. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
- O’Neill, Michael. “Romantic Legacies in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry.” Romanticism and its Legacies: Public Lecture Series. Durham University. 12 December 2006.
- O’Neill, Michael. The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.
- Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
- Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 1997.
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works. Eds. Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
- Thoreau, Henry David. The Illustrated Walden. Ed. Lyndon J. Shanley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
- Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell. New York: Library of America, 2001.
- Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Ed E. De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Clarendon, 1947.
- Selincourt, E. De and Helen Darbishire. William Wordsworth. Oxford Authors. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.
- Yeats, W.B. W.B. Yeats. Oxford Authors. Ed. Edward Larrissy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.