The Case for The Poetry Of Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Robert Frost (Credit: New York World-Telegram & Sun)

“No Memory of Having Starred Atones For Later Disregard:” The Case for the Poetry of Robert Frost

Robert Frost, long out of favor in academe, has been undergoing a long and long-deserved revival.  While he once enjoyed the acclaim of general readers and secondary school English teachers, his presumed aesthetic conservatism, his late-in-life involvement with the Kennedy administration, and his literary stardom did not endear him to those academics who preferred highly abstract poetry that required professional explicators.

Of course, the widespread decline in the consumption and teaching of poetry has affected Frost, too.  Fewer and fewer heed the poet Joseph Brodsky’s terse admonition—“Would you like to meet Mr. Frost?  Then read his poems, nothing else.”[i]—about any poet, let alone Frost.  But if you read and probe Frost’s work more broadly and deeply than you might have in high school classrooms or college anthologies, his dark, gorgeous excellence might surprise you.

It’s true that even Frost’s most ardent admirers must acknowledge that his politics, personality, and poetry depressed his posthumous reputation.  In fact, Frost suffered a distinct eclipse after his death in 1963.  When alive, he was the last American poet to enjoy wide popularity among ordinary readers.  His book, A Witness Tree, sold over 10,000 copies in two months when it first appeared in 1942,[ii] for instance, a remarkable figure given the advent of World War II and the smaller literary marketplace of sixty-five years ago.  Readers might have reasonably chosen more escapist or more topical fare.  Even for a public more familiar with poetry than today’s readers, a book of lyric poems ostensibly about sycamores, moths in winter, and the planet Venus wouldn’t necessarily have leapt off the shelves—except that Robert Frost’s name meant something back then.

Frost was also a dazzling performer, who consistently gave readings to overflow crowds.  Constructing a charismatic public persona as a New England “sage,” (and eliding his California boyhood), Frost could recite his verse with mesmeric power as extant recordings suggest.  The younger poet, Robert Lowell, in his book, History, provides a vivid and painful recollection of Frost after one such reading late in Frost’s career. In his title poem, “History,” Lowell’s suggests the artifice and cost of Frost’s literary celebrity:

Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone
to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs,
his voice is musical and raw…”[iii]

Today, however, Frost attracts less literary attention and esteem than he should.  Frost’s literary stock has yet to benefit, as Wallace Stevens’ has, from a reassessment of the modernist canon or a more expansive understanding of what might Modernism might mean.  As David Orr remarked in a New York Times article on Frost’s notebooks, “He’s a definitive Great American Poet, yet he’s never been embraced by the American Academy as eagerly as, say, Ezra Pound.”[iv]

Many in university English departments believed Pound’s Cantos and Eliot’s The Wasteland, with their fragmented, collage-like construction, defined “avant-garde” or “experimental.”  Writing poems that ‘made sense,’ and appeared to be accessible to the common reader—although Frost’s poems are fiercely complex—garnered whispered dismissals from those who believed that modern art must be opaque and rebarbative.  (True “experimentalists” were supposed to provoke riots as the première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring famously did.)  Frost’s very popularity has made him suspect, in other words.  Moreover, although his recasting of traditional meter and rhyme into a natural American speaking voice was highly innovative, Frost’s militant “formalism” antagonized free-verse modernists.

Marjorie Perloff—now a professor emerita at Stanford and the doyenne of “experimental poetry”—when asked which poets she regularly taught in her modern poetry survey classes at the University of Southern California—once told an interviewer: “Notice I omit Frost and H.D.  Simply a matter of taste: I never teach work I don’t really like.”[v] This quiet disdain for Frost dominated much of academe for the last forty years.  Until recently, it was possible to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree in literature at a major American university and never read one of Frost’s poems.[vi]

However, the Frost revival seems to reflect, and be reflected in, younger academics’ renewed interest in Frost.  Frost has started to make a comeback of sorts, for example, on college syllabi.  A Google search now turns up hundreds of university-level poetry courses which appear to include some work by Frost, albeit often only the same poems (“Mending Wall,” “Birches,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “The Road Less Traveled”) which high schools taught forty or fifty years ago.

Abroad, Frost has a very different reputation.  Paul Muldoon, an avowedly “experimental” Irish émigré poet now teaching at Princeton, has named Frost “the greatest American poet of the 20th century.”[vii] Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott—three of the best contemporary poets and all Nobel laureates—are another indication that foreign readers rank Frost among America’s most accomplished poets.  In fact, all three laureates, acutely aware of the generally dismissive American attitude towards Frost, make a strong case for Frost’s work in a trio of essays that were collected in 1996 and published as a book.[viii]

Heaney, in his analysis of Frost’s relatively low standing in American letters, attributes this “critical resistance” to a “…punitive strain which is never far to seek in literary circles…” and suggests that unflattering biographical revelations as well as Frost’s “…apotheosis into an idol mutually acceptable to his own and his country’s self-esteem, and greatly inflationary of both…”[ix] have led to a kind of post-coital disgust.  In other words, many are faintly embarrassed by a great poet who too eagerly embraced America’s now tarnished cold-war imperium, lectured abroad on “good-will” missions organized by the State Department and prophesied “a golden age of poetry and power”[x] at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1960.

It’s true that Frost’s politics don’t make him easy to love.  His opposition to the New Deal, for instance, made him sound like a curmudgeon.  Frost opposed Roosevelt’s policies partly because he advocated Emersonian “self-reliance” and partly because he resented government handouts to the unemployed when, for many years, he had had to scramble to support his wife and children with farming and teaching while trying to find time to write.

Even in his magnificent preface to the Collected Poems of 1939, “The Figure A Poem Makes,” (an essay that also highlights Frost’s brilliant understanding of how to use traditional meters for modernist ends), Frost cannot resist the temptation to wade into the political fray.  Distinguishing between the true freedom or “wildness” proper to poetry and what Frost felt was the false liberty of free verse, Frost declares: I have given up my democratic prejudices and now willingly set the lower classes free to be completely taken care of by the upper classes.  Political freedom is nothing to me.  I bestow it right and left.  All I would keep for myself is the freedom of my material, the condition of body and mind now and then to summon aptly from the vast chaos of all I have lived through.[xi]

What Frost intended as a lofty Transcendentalist declaration of the imagination’s independence from the tyranny of partisan politics is, unfortunately, tainted by a failure of moral vision.  The fate of poets and their “material”—not to mention much larger classes of humanity—had already made the cost of jettisoning “political freedom” under Fascist or Totalitarian regimes quite clear.

Nor was Frost always able to avoid becoming embroiled in partisan politics.  If he resisted pressures to write propaganda for the Allied cause during World War II, often to the consternation of close friends like Louis Untermeyer, he succumbed all too readily to cold-war pieties later on.  The claim he made after meeting Nikita Khrushchev during an official visit to the Soviet Union in 1962, that, “Khrushchev said he feared for us modern liberals […] He said we were too liberal to fight.  I suppose he thought we’d stand there for the next hundred years saying, ‘On the one hand, but on the other hand…’”[xii] illustrates Frost’s stance as a somewhat glib cold-warrior.  Amusingly, though, Frost experienced the same ambivalence he criticized liberals for indulging.  His love for the natural world and his anxiety about a nuclear holocaust spurred him to stress that the East-West rivalry should be “magnanimous,” and that “we” should do nothing to “poison the wells, or kill the apple trees.”[xiii]

Fortunately, for most of his career, Frost generally kept this amateurish political commentary out of his poetry.  Perhaps only in his late poems on science and religion does the crank get the better of the genius.  In “A Concept Self-Conceived,” for example, Frost attacks science for what he believed was its insistence on God as a human construct, equating such a view with “Pantheism” or paganism.  “Why go on further with confusing voice…?”, Frosts asks, to undermine our traditional and reassuring belief in God?

The poem answers this question with the bang of a fist on a table: “The rule is, never give a child a choice.”[xiv] Frost’s chilling answer to modern agnosticism is apparently to suppress it with a father’s harsh fiat.  But prohibition and indoctrination can only stifle uncertainty about God’s existence or drive it underground.  Moreover, forcibly suppressing doubt tends to amplify it.  These psychological realities makes Frost’s dictate seem self-defeating.  Even Frost’s earlier schoolmasterish poems—such as “The Road Less Traveled” and “Mending Wall”—don’t incite such a skeptical response.  Their aesthetic power overwhelms their sometimes heavy-handed didacticism, a miracle Frost could no longer manage later in his career when the Yankee Guru had elbowed the Poet off the rostrum.

If Frost’s political and social ideas—though by no means as distasteful as those of Eliot or Pound whose work academe has nonetheless embraced—have repelled some readers, the details of his personal life have not made him a comforting figure, either.  Frost’s official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, apparently grew to dislike his older friend, for example.  When the last volume of Thompson’s biography of Frost appeared in 1973, the cumulative picture of Frost was, as Heaney summarizes, that of a “[c]alculating self-publicist, reprehensible egotist [and] oppressive parent…”.[xv] Thompson’s damaging revelations included the suicide of Frost’s son, Carol, and the mental illness of Frost’s sister, Jeanie, and later his daughter, Irma.  Frost’s wife, Elinor, was also often depressed and estranged, and Frost blamed himself for her fatal heart attack.

Frost’s published letters, which sometimes reveal raw literary ambition, unseemly envy, and unsavory prejudices, don’t make Frost appear to advantage, either.  Derek Walcott, in a review of the Library of America edition of Frost’s collected work, noted that Frost expresses a racism—not untypical of his time and place—in a letter referring to Gertrude Stein’s opera, Four Saints In Three Acts: “I read that negroes were chosen to sing her opera because they have less need than white men to know what they are talking about.  That is a thing that can be reported without malice.”[xvi] (As is sometimes the case in his poetry, Frost’s true import runs counter to what he says explicitly.)  Frost’s likely motive—in what Walcott aptly terms this “turd in the road”[xvii]—is to get in a dig at Stein and her avant-garde cachet, but that doesn’t make the remark any less nasty.

Much earlier, Frost had stooped to an even uglier bigotry in his characterization of William Braithewaite, a critic and anthologist who had supported Frost early in his career, but later dared to prefer Robinson Jeffers’ poetry to Frost’s.  Frost disparaged Braithewaite in a letter as a “nigger,” while admitting that his correspondent might not “…like me to talk this way.”[xviii] However, as Walcott also remarks, there is a kind of violation involved in our “…ravaging the privacy of family correspondence for proof of racism…”[xix] How many of us, for instance, would like our private emails picked apart by later critics determined to find evidence of unkindness or worse?  Everyone’s closets contain a skeleton or two.

Interestingly, Frost’s treatment of American Indians in his poetry suggests a more generous attitude than that which characterized many white Americans of his time.  An early uncollected poem titled “La Noche Triste” (“the sad night” in Spanish) inspired by Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico,[xx] recounts Cortez’s retreat from Tenochititlan and displays a quiet but definite sympathy for the Aztecs.  A later narrative poem, “The Vanishing Red,” from Frost’s book Mountain Interval, relates the disappearance of the last American Indian in a fictional New England village.  The poem owes something to Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” about a madman who conceals his murder victim beneath the floor of his room, but Frost reacts with real horror to the brutal killing of an Indian named “John” simply because the murderer felt:

[s]ome guttural exclamation of surprise
The Red Man gave in poking about the mill
Over the great big thumping shuffling millstone
Disgusted the Miller physically as coming
From one who had no right to be heard from.

Nor is it entirely true as Walcott claims that, in “The Gift Outright” which Frost read at Kennedy’s inauguration, Frost wholly disregards “…the dispossession of others that [American] destiny demanded.”[xxi] While describing America’s expansion “…To the land vaguely realizing westward,” and the growth of an inner acceptance of mystical American belonging, “Such as we were we gave ourselves outright…,” Frost does not gloss over the fact that “…The deed of gift was many deeds of war…” Moreover, the tone of the poem—always vital in interpreting Frost’s poems since they depend on the voice (sarcastic, indignant, ecstatic) with which you’re meant to read them—is curiously somber and meditative for a presidential inauguration.  Frost’s depiction of the American genesis concedes its sometimes violent consequences.

In any event, Walcott affirms, that “… a phrase from a letter by Frost [does not] damn[…] Frost forever.  One groans or shudders, but one pushes on.  Poetry is its own realm and does not pardon.  There is nothing to forgive Frost’s poetry for.  There are, instead, many poems to be grateful for… since poetry pronounces benediction not on the poet but on the reader.”[xxii] D.H. Lawrence’s dictum to “trust the tale, not the teller” still holds good.  Any poem, as Frost believed, is an event or gesture as real as any other and—like the fall of an empire or the opening of a door—it breeds its own moral consequences.

Paradoxically, perhaps the deepest shadow on Frost’s reputation is cast by his own greatest poems.  His work is profoundly uncomfortable and uncomforting.  He is not a “feel-good” writer hawking Emersonian uplift.  If you push past the frequently anthologized poems, whose homiletic designs Elizabeth Bishop once characterized as “…the bad side of Frost, or the silly side, the wisdom-of-the-ages side…,”[xxiii] and plunge into the body of his work, you will a discover an astoundingly dark view of the human condition.

This isn’t like to win over readers, especially since Frost’s folksy public persona is no longer available to mask or palliate it.  Notwithstanding Heaney’s claim that Frost’s poems often represent “… the crestings of a tide that lift all spirits,”[xxiv] Lionel Trilling’s famous pronouncement that “[t]he universe that [Frost] conceives is a terrifying universe… Read “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”… and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived” [xxv] seems closer to the mark.

Early and late, Frost is a truly frightening poet.  “The Fear,” in his second book, North of Boston, narrates the nighttime return of a couple, pursued by invisible avengers, to an isolated farm.  It is only the most scarifying of many superb short stories in blank verse that are largely ignored today.  Others, such as “A Servant to Servants,” about a woman teetering on the edge of madness, or “Home Burial,” which depicts the damage done to a couple by the death of their young child (as the Frosts’ first son, Elliot, did at the age of four) create protagonists with a three-dimensional inner life.  Poe and Hawthorne seem mere allegorists by contrast.

Even in is his last book, In the Clearing, when Frost seems to have become more consciously optimistic and more genuinely buoyed by a renewal of religious faith, he can still write a poem as utterly inconsolable and unconsoling as “Escapist, Never,” a sort of savage, truncated sonnet with its final couplet hacked off.  This rarely anthologized poem is worth quoting in full.

He is no fugitive, escaped, escaping
No one has seen him stumble looking back.
His fear is not behind him but beside him
On either hand to make his course perhaps
A crooked straightness yet no less a straightness.
He runs face forward.  He is a pursuer.
He seeks a seeker who in his turn seeks
Another still, lost far into the distance.
Any who seek him seek in him the seeker.
His life is a pursuit of a pursuit forever.
It is the future that creates his present.
All is an interminable chain of longing.

This unrhymed almost-sonnet’s abrupt end creates both a sudden silence and a jarring lack of closure.  Together, these formal effects enact the poem’s complaint about the wearisome infinity and impossibility of human need.   It is as if the formal erotic flourish of even so bleak a characterization of desire as Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 129 provides,

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell,

could not satisfy Frost’s sense of the utter futility of longing.   Unlike Shakespeare’s heaven and hell, Frost’s “interminable chain” is a secular image of menacing infinity, of a process that has no terminus and guarantees dissatisfaction.  Moreover, Frost’s poem transfigures the sexual bitterness and dense temporal recapitulations of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 (“…mad in pursuit [italics mine] and in possession so;/ Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme…”) into a larger existential horror.

Whereas Shakespeare castigates sexual need—“The’expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action…” as a seeming “heaven” that, in fact, leads to a continually re-enacted chastisement of desire, Frost enlarges the scope of this indictment.  He convicts desire in the abstract, even the desire to create a self: “Any who seek him seek in him the seeker./ His life is a pursuit of a pursuit [italics mine] forever.”  In this late Frost poem, then, a state of continuous, insatiable need creates an infinite recession of seeking.  It has become a terrifying basis for being and defines or deforms the soul.  As the metaphor of the “chain” suggests, it’s also a punishment, a torture, and a penance.

More darkly yet, Frost’s poem—with its marked caesurae, its high proportion of end-stopped and single-sentence verses, and the syllabic expansion by the poems’ end to lines that overwhelm and nearly fracture their own iambic pentameter—seems an agonized reversal of a consoling moment from John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” another canonical poetic definition of desire.  In Keats’ ecstatic interrogation of what art might offer to a viewer faced with mortality, (“What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?” [italics mine]) he first empathizes with the figures on his imaginary urn who are condemned by the fixity of representation never to obtain the objects of their desire,

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal…

but then comforts himself with the realization that the “bold lover” should “not grieve” because his lover,

… cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

For Frost, in “Escapist, Never,” this Keatsian gratitude for art’s eternally prolonged but eternally preserved desire has gone horribly wrong.  It is as if this Keatsian scene has stepped down off the urn and materialized in real life.

Keats’ consolation has become, for Frost, a horrifying permanence, not of art, but of existence itself: “His life is a pursuit forever…\ All is an interminable chain of longing.”  This is the terror of an old man in a moment of despair when the machine of the libido keeps grinding away, even after the body and the future can no longer support it.  Frost’s additional, almost Poe-like flourish of horror is, however, that this is the actual condition of being alive.  It would be hard to imagine a harsher vision than the one that closes this poem.  To be part of “an interminable chain of longing,” where the links in the chain are like the poem’s last five sentences, each condemned to stand apart on its own line of verse while locked in a sequence of permanent dissatisfaction, seems a “terrifying universe,” indeed.  Yet, despite its starkness, the poem is still beautiful for its brave depiction of old age confronting permanent sensual loss.  In a sense, the poem is also an old man’s declaration of triumph, of a refusal to be “escapist” despite his despair.

Ironically, even in a poem where Heaney’s view of Frost—that he excels at what Heaney terms: “…an airy vernal daring… [so that] when Frost comes down hard upon the facts of hurt, he still manages to end up gaining poetic altitude… [as] his intelligence thrusts down, it creates a reactive force capable of raising and carrying the whole burden of our knowledge and experience.”[xxvi]—feels truer than Trilling’s characterization, Frost never feels wholly weightless.  “The Silken Tent” is a poem whose central trope embodies both the near buoyancy and the pain Heaney refers to.  Written for Kathleen Morrison, the married woman with whom Frost fell in love after his wife’s death, who eventually became his secretary and who may or may not have reciprocated Frost’s feelings,[xxvii] “The Silken Tent” is another modernist almost-sonnet of thirteen lines which recognizes that love possesses both lift and gravity at the same time.

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware. [xxviii]

The figure of the silk tent possesses here an elegance and complexity of conceit that recalls the metaphysical poetry of George Herbert.  Yet Frost manages his metaphors with all the naturalness of the nearly vernacular.  At once a fantastical wedding pavilion, a spider’s web, and a hot-air balloon still tied to the earth, the tent is an excruciatingly delicate and extended simile of the speaker’s predicament.  His love is both freeing and binding, while the “she” of the poem is, in her turn, bound by her own separate duties of love.

Further, as in “Escapist, Never,” Frost again explores a definition of the self.  In this poem, however, he re-envisions a defining conception of American identity found in Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”  In Whitman’s earlier poem, a spider “…[stands] isolated…” and,

launche[s] forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself…[ ]

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Whitman’s quintessentially American self-creation ex nihilo, god-like and solitary, involves a horizontal gesture of “throwing” outwards, a probing of the “vacant, vast surrounding” in the soul’s attempt to attach itself to some fixed point in an apparently empty universe.  Significantly, Whitman’s poem ends in a conditional, prophetic mode, with the soul still in the process of creation, still seeking attachment and still unfulfilled.

Frost, on the other hand, redefines the soul in the present tense as an entity in love, at the center of a complex network of emotions and claims.  The “sureness of the soul” is figured by the tent’s “supporting central cedar pole” and its gesture is upwards to a recognizable heaven, not outwards to an unnamable chaos.

Moreover, Frost’s poem charts both a rising and a falling emotion.  As the poem launches into the exhilaration of its equation of “she is like a silken tent in a field,’ he notes that “all its ropes relent”, as if the speaker’s oblique declaration of love sets free a lyric ecstasy.  But the poem, having pictured the steadfastness of the soul, cannot then forget the beloved’s competing “silken ties of love and thought,” or her other restricting spiritual obligations.  Frost ends the poem with a slight troubling motion, “the capriciousness of summer air” which, by pulling one rope “taut,” reminds the speaker of the beloved’s “bondage” to another, his own “bondage” to her, and the “bondage” of all souls to earthly concerns, whatever their aspirations.

Frosts spools out this symbology of desire in one long fluent sentence.  In marked contrast to “Escapist, Never” with its painfully isolated sentence-verses, the syntax of the “The Silken Tent’ constitutes a single interlocking system, rather like a silken tent of words.  Finally, although a happier poem, “The Silken Tent” still ends with an allusion to “bondage” just as “Escapist, Never” culminates in a “chain.”  Where another poet might have let his metaphor break free, despite the conviction that real life would not mimic this release, Frost refuses to ignore the conflicting tetherings and attachments of the self, even at his most elated.  Frost can’t escape his stark awareness of social constrictions; no matter how “slight” they might seem in the midst of romantic elation.  This is not a message calculated to charm the eternal optimist in the American character, even though Frost could pretend to be such a figure, himself, in his more polemical moods.

The terrifying Frost, the caustic Frost, the Frost who sees human desire and the soul as chained and unassuageble, who falls in love yet sees his passion caught in a spider’s web, may never regain the popularity he enjoyed during his own lifetime.  While alive, Frost knew too well how to conceal his more disquieting aspects under a folksy moralizing demeanor.  But death and other critics have stripped him of this privilege.

Certainly, too, it is now easy to be put off by what Randall Jarrell tartly noted as Frost’s, “…other self…[one] that might be called the Grey Eminence of Robert Taft, or the Peter Pan of the National Association of Manufacturers, or any such thing, this public self [which] incarnates all the institutionalized complacency that Frost once mocked at and fled from, and later pretended to become a part of…[t]his Yankee Editorialist side of Frost [which] gets in the way of everything…”[xxix]

But, Jarrell argues, it’s a mistake to let Frost’s public impostures and private blunders distract you from “a poet so magically good.”[xxx] Moreover, if great contemporary poets as diverse as Brodsky, Heaney and Walcott could look past Frost’s parochialisms and stupidities to the excellence of his verse, shouldn’t their admiration be a strong hint to the American reader?  It would be a shame to allow Frost to continue to enjoy more recognition abroad (from Russian, Irish and Caribbean poets) than in his own country.  If the nationalistic celebration Frost provided President Kennedy in “The Gift Outright” still sets your teeth on edge, leaven that irritation with Frost’s lacerating attack on the American cult of fame and money in his poem “Provide, Provide” from A Further Range:

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all.  Provide, provide![xxxi]

The savage indignation in this poem is worthy of Swift at his fiercest.  Its brilliant, razor-sharp tercets also make one think of Yeats or a character from Dante’s Inferno lashing out at the sins of the world while unconsciously exposing his own.   Indeed, in a layering of ironies so complex they are almost impossible to disentangle, Frost simultaneously mocks our tradition of literary self-help à la Benjamin Franklin and parodies his own stance as a New England moralist, while lampooning the American craving for celebrity, money, and the illusory solace they bring.

That the poem imagines a career almost the opposite of Frost’s, who obtained fame and recognition only in the last half of his life, is yet another acid in this poem’s potent brew.  Yet, going beyond satire, Frost also slyly confesses to the raw human need, even at the end of life, for the love which applause makes manifest: “No memory of having starred/Atones for later disregard…” In doing so, the poem exposes the artist’s desperation to receive an assurance of love and fame after his own death, that his works and his audience will outlive him.  Frost’s brutality both conceals and specifies this terrible pathos of the poet.

We’re ultimately the poorer if we blame Frost for once “having starred” and ignore the complex and painful beauty of his work.  Of the first generation of Modernists, perhaps Pound and Eliot will come to seem less central, while Frost, and Wallace Stevens will appear more so.  (Ironically, Frost maliciously disclaimed any affinity with Wallace Stevens in an interview in The Paris Review.  Frost is quoted as saying that  “once he [Wallace Stevens] said to me, ‘You write on subjects.’  And I said, ‘You write on bric-a-brac.’”[xxxii] Nonetheless, their division of labor would amply seem to cover the entire spectrum of things to write poetry about.)

In any event, the challenge of Frost’s accomplishment deserves more than glib dismissals from arm-chair moralists and the bien pensant.  For all his masquerade as a homespun Aesop and his pose as a latter-day Virgil, Frost possessed one of the most passionate and original imaginations America has yet produced.


[i] “All The Difference,” by Robert Miles; The New York Times, May 11, 2008 (review of “Fall of Frost” by Brian Hall).

[ii] Robert Lowell, “Robert Frost” from Selected Poems, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), p. 929.

[iii] Robert Lowell, “Robert Frost” from Selected Poems, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), p. 180.

[iv] “Frost on the Edge,” by David Orr, The New York Times: February 4, 2007 (

[v] Interview with David Clippinger: The Argotist Online (

[vi] Thompson et al., Robert Frost: A Biography, p. 441.

[vii] “Frost on the Edge” (op. cit.)

[viii] Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney & Derek Walcott, Homage to Robert Frost, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996)

[ix] Seamus Heaney, “Above the Brim” from Homage to Robert Frost, p. 61.

[x] Robert Frost, “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration” from Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, (New York: The Library of America, 1995), p. 437.

[xi] Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, p. 778.

[xii] Thompson et al., Robert Frost: A Biography, p. 500.

[xiii] Thompson et al., Robert Frost: A Biography, p. 492-503.

[xiv] Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, p. 440.

[xv] Seamus Heaney, “Above the Brim,” p. 61.

[xvi] Derek Walcott, “The Road Taken” from Homage to Robert Frost, p. 112.

[xvii] Derek Walcott, “The Road Taken” from Homage to Robert Frost,  p. 112.

[xviii] Thompson et al., Robert Frost: A Biography, p. 224.

[xix] Derek Walcott, “The Road Taken” from Homage to Robert Frost,  p. 112.

[xx] Thompson et al., Robert Frost: A Biography, p. 49.

[xxi] Derek Walcott, “The Road Taken” from Homage to Robert Frost,  p. 93-94.

[xxii] Derek Walcott, “The Road Taken” from Homage to Robert Frost,  p. 114

[xxiii] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art, Robert Giroux, Editor, (New York: Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 1994), p.432.

[xxiv] Seamus Heaney, “Above The Brim,” from Homage to Robert Frost, p.66.

[xxv] Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, p. 953.

[xxvi] Seamus Heaney, “Above The Brim,” from Homage to Robert Frost, p.74-75.

[xxvii] Thompson et al., Robert Frost: A Biography, p. 383-390.

[xxviii] Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, p. 302.

[xxix] Randall Jarrell, “To The Laodiceans,” from Robert Frost, A Collection of Critical Essays, James M. Cox, Editor, (Englewood, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), p. 85.

[xxx] Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost, A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 85.

[xxxi] Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, p. 280.

[xxxii]Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, p. 879.


About Malcolm Farley

Writer, Photographer, Poet, Imagineer
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Opinion, Prose and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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