Not many writers, especially not many poets, surpass after the age of fifty-six the achievements of their middle life—but Robert Frost did…
One night in the fall of 1926 I found a note in my mailbox that gave me a jump of excitement. I saved that note for many years but cannot reproduce it now, for it vanished, with other literary effects I prized, in an illegal sale of goods I had trustfully stored in a warehouse. It may turn up some day in a pile of rummage, but it is likely, I think, that it was destroyed as worthless at the time of the auction. I was, of course, financially compensated for the loss before the case was brought to trial but what psychological compensation can there be for the destruction of papers that have intense, sentimental, literary significance?
The note on a small sheet of paper—was it torn from a notebook?—was signed “Robert Frost.” I do not remember whether it was pencilled or penned, or if it said anything more than to ask me to telephone its signer at Ridgely Torrence’s number in the morning. I was surprised but made an immediate guess. The note had something to do with an interpretative essay on Frost I had published a year and a half earlier in the Saturday Review of Literature. I had heard indirectly that Frost had liked this essay. He had been to Dartmouth “barding around,” and had told a Wesleyan classmate of mine, George R. Potter, who was teaching there, that he liked my Saturday Review piece because “it said something new about me,” and Potter had conveyed to me this praise. So I expected some sign of favorable interest when I called the Torrence number from the pay telephone at Charles French Restaurant on Sixth Avenue, where in those days I often went for breakfast.
Frost shyly told me why he had left the note at 144 West Eleventh. John Farrar, the young editor at the George H. Doran Company, a Vermonter, wanted to publish a biography of Robert Frost. He was launching a series—the Murray Hill Biographies—and had commissioned books on Upton Sinclair, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edwin Arlington Robinson; now he was looking for someone to write on Frost. Very tactfully Frost sounded me on my willingness to undertake such a commission. He was so tentative in his approach that it would have been easy to decline the flattering suggestion. I said at once that I would like to discuss the suggestion, and Frost invited me to dinner at the Torrence apartment on Morton Street deep in the Village.
I had met Ridgely Torrence several times previously at 107 Waverly Place where he had lived in the top-floor apartment his friend William Vaughn Moody had once occupied. Moody’s wealthy widow had retained the apartment and put the Torrences in it, and I had invited myself there in 1918 to look at the amateur paintings of William Vaughn Moody which graced the walls. My memory of these is dim and my notes on them also disappeared in the auction sale disaster, but I believe they were pictures of moors and the sea, blueish in tone and misty in effect. Torrence was the self-effacing poetry editor of The New Republic, and was recognized by a few—Colum and Robinson and Frost—as being a fine poet. Frost dedicated a poem to him, “A Passing Glimpse”; the dedication reads: “To Ridgely Torrence on Last Looking into His ‘Hesperides.'” This poem concludes with a thought: “Heaven gives its glimpses only to those / Not in a position to look too close” which seems an appropriate thing to say of the poet who wrote “Light.” “I have read it,” A.E. Housman said of Torrence’s work, “with admiration for its poetic impulse and for the accomplishment of its verse… Yet the anthologists who now rightly remember Trumbull Stickney have already passed over “Light” and “Adam’s Dying” and “The Son” and two or three others of Torrence’s best poems.
Thus I came to the Morton Street apartment of the Torrence’s and was greeted by tall, gentle Ridgely and by Olivia Howard Dunbar, his writing wife who was to write a book after Mrs. Moody’s death in 1932 about this shining salon mistress, Harriet Moody, who had encouraged Hart Crane when he was sixteen. I was then presented to the house guest. “Prohibition cocktails” appeared, and we drank them standing up. I noticed that Frost was no sipper but downed his drink like a Vermont farmer, and we proceeded to the table. As was to be expected on this occasion, and as always happened in the company of Frost, Frost led the conversation and contributed the most.
What he told me was certainly flattering, but it was clearly not intended to flatter. He said that when Farrar had asked him to suggest someone to write a Murray Hill biography of him, he had named me because I had said something different about him and he felt I would produce a critical book. He made it clear that he did not want a personal life that invaded the privacy of himself and his family. No, he wanted a biography that would be a critical account of his work, one that would observe the line between the public and the private life and would respect his reticence about his family life. He had never written me about my Saturday Review essay because, he said, “I was waiting for a chance to do something to show my appreciation,” and that chance had come when John Farrar had asked him to suggest a biographer. I told Frost that the restrictions he imposed on his biographer were entirely acceptable. I would much rather write a critical biography than a personal, probing, psychological study such as was coming into vogue, and so we parted early that night with the understanding that Farrar would offer me a contract.
In the summer of 1924, which I spent at the Woodstock, N.Y., colony, I read all of Frost I could find. I initiated my thorough study of the poet, whose poems I had hitherto read only sporadically, with his most recent book—his fourth—New Hampshire. I had been surprised and delighted by the title poem, “New Hampshire,” a Horatian satire in a contemporary manner. I had not expected to find a bucolic poet at play in the midst of the sophisticated literary currents of the period, but there Frost was, knowledgeable of the new literary forces, but humorous and satirical about them. “New Hampshire” was different from anything Frost had written before, and I, a modern, responded with an enthusiasm not felt for A Boy’s Will and the other early volumes of Frost. These I had respected, but “New Hampshire” raised my appreciation of them by providing insight into the poet’s direction.
“I may as well confess myself the author of several books against the world in general.”
What did Frost mean by these lines, I asked; for up to then, Frost had been classified by Amy Lowell, Waldo Frank and other champions of the “new poetry” as a votary of the new movement in American literature. But in “New Hampshire” Frost seemed to disassociate him self from the new wave of American writers. He took a stand against their tendencies and revolts.
I was made equally curious by Frost’s reply in “New Hampshire” to “a narrow choice the age insists on.” According to the poem, Frost had been commanded: “Choose you which you will be—a prude, or puke, / Mewling and puking in the public arms.” “Me for the hills where I don’t have to choose” was Frost’s first reply, and then he said: “How about being a good Greek, for instance?” In that question I seemed to discover a key to Frost’s poetic intentions, but I needed corroboration. That confirmation I received from an accident of reading that same summer at Woodstock.
Edwin and Vera Seaver were living at Zena, near Woodstock, and Edwin was producing a short-lived “little magazine,” 1924—had it survived it would have changed its name with the new year each year—to which I contributed an essay on the negativism of T.S. Eliot. I liked to walk over from “Ma” Russell’s boarding house to the Seavers’ shack for chit-chat about letters and the young generation. One afternoon, Seaver told me of the stimulation he had received from Irving Babbitt’s famous course at Harvard on Rousseau and romanticism, and he so far overcame my prejudice against Babbitt, which I had acquired from the aspersions of H.L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks, that I found myself carrying Seaver’s copy of Rousseau and Romanticism back to “Ma” Russell’s. Soon, I was engrossed in this illuminating study of the imagination, its nature, kinds, and function, and the further I read into it, the more light it seemed to throw on the poetics of Robert Frost. Babbitt’s study of the imagination gave me an explanation of why Frost went against the general drift of the world and why he wanted to be a good Greek. I saw that Frost was not a romantic poet, as some would have it, but rather a classical poet, as nobody seemed to be remarking.
So I wrote a paper at the end of that summer of ’24 that was intended to show that Robert Frost was a poet of humanistic temper. “The purest classical poet of America today is Robert Frost,” I declared at the outset of this paper. This was the “something different,” the “something new” that I said about Frost that led him to leave a note in my mailbox a couple of years later.
I did not know at the time that Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, the leaders of the New Humanism, as it was to be called in the last years of the twenties, had discovered the humanistic nature of Frost’s poetry as early as 1916. In that year, Frost was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. “It was over the dead body of Robert Underwood Johnson, and with the backing of Wilbur Cross, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More that I got in,” Frost told Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant. “Johnson’s resistance had its source in my early refusals by magazines. My backers could only bring me in as a Humanist.” “Which means a Platonist,” Frost mistakenly added, forgetting that while More was a Platonist, Babbitt might better be termed an Aristotelian.
Nor had I then read an essay on Frost’s neighborliness by a follower of Babbitt and More, a young Amherst professor, G.R. Elliott, in which Frost’s neighborliness was differentiated from humanitarianism, a romantic cult Frost despised. As Lawrence Thompson was to observe long after Elliott’s essay, “the metaphor which represents the key to Frost’s social outlook is the metaphor of community relationship: neighborliness.” Frost felt, in Thompson’s well-chosen words, that “the well-meaning pity of the humanitarians encourages the abandonment of that self-discipline and individual action which is the basic unit of social strength.”
A few years later, Frost was protesting vigorously against being labelled a New Humanist. He was quite right. His temper was humanistic but his poetry cannot be defined by or confined to intellectual concepts. Lawrance Thompson very sensibly observes that “certain aspects of the Emersonian position in poetic theory proved to be closely akin to the poetic theory and practice of Robert Frost. But Emerson’s aesthetic utterances were elucidated and modified into a somewhat extreme aesthetic by the ‘new humanist,’ whose dogmatic claims were much too rigid to attract Frost.” Let it be repeated: the poet Frost will never enlist under the banner of any school of criticism, New Humanist, Neoclassical or Romantic. And a critic who insists on a label for Frost’s philosophy and poetry is too much of a schoolmaster in a field where judgments should be flexible.
“There is some truth in Gorham Munson’s early judgment,” Malcolm Cowley says in his essay, “The Case Against Mr. Frost,” referring to the judgment that Frost is “the purest classical poet of America today,” and I propose to reassert, more than three decades after my little biography of Frost appeared, the “some truth” in its early judgment that Cowley concedes.
The most classical trait of Frost, I should say, is the high place he gives to form in his ars poetica. In his early conversations with me, he several times mentioned form as one of the highest literary qualities. Four years later, at one of his New School for Social Research lectures, I took down verbatim his definition of creation: “Creation has its end implicit in the beginning but not foreknown.” Has a better definition of organic form ever been offered? Frost said it again in 1939 in his prose introduction to Collected Poems. Of the course of a true poem, he said that “it has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood and indeed from the very mood.” The principle of the unforeseen but predestined is the very principle of growth or organic form, and in its working exemplifies the classical laws of probability and inevitability.
Frost’s classical nature comes out in boldest contrast when we compare him with one of his romantic contemporaries, that rival for whom he had little esteem, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg declared that the past was a bucket of ashes and sought for “new ways to be new,” as Frost named the quest for poetic novelty. He practiced the cult of free verse, inspired by the majestic chanting rhythms of Whitman but as someone has observed, producing a banjo version of them. In time, Sandburg became a sentimental humanitarian poet, his credo of “The people, yes” provoking Frost to reply, “The people, yes and no.”
In contrast, Frost went back for inspiration to the pastoral poetry of Vergil and the satires of Horace. Except for one poem, “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers,” Frost eschewed free verse—”like playing tennis with the net down,” he drily remarked and practiced in the traditional patterns and forms. His triumph was that, in becoming a traditional poet, he escaped being merely conventional and succeeded in being creative. He found, as he put it, “old ways to be new.”
How did he achieve newness by working in the old ways? Chiefly, I would say, by experimentation in the “sound of sense.” Even as a youthful poet, he would have none of the “musicality of literature” theory advanced by Poe and Lanier, and quite early he was drawn to the study of verbal images, the connotation of tones of voice, the sound of sense. What possibilities of the dramatic there were in the sound of sense! This was the thing, and not any theory of quantitative verse such as Robert Bridges had expounded to him. “The living part of a poem,” he had said in refutation of Bridges, “is the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax, idiom and meaning of a sentence.”
Frost used a simple illustration that nonetheless gives the whole meaning of his sound of sense creed. Here is a primer version of sense:
I see a dog.
The dog is in the house.
I will put him out.
He will come back.
Now let us put this sense into tones of voice:
There’s that dog again. Get out of here, you brute!
Oh, what’s the use! He’ll come back.
The sounds bring the words to life. Now they are energetic, dramatic, charged with tone—now they can be taken into poetry. For a motto, Frost took for himself “common in experience—uncommon in writing.” This, too, was a classical approach to material. Not the wild or extravagant or eccentric or peculiar or extreme areas of experience but the central, common, broad areas were to be his material; “uncommonness” was to come from experimentation in the writing of the sound of sense.
By adhering to the traditional forms of poetry and by the use of material common in experience, Frost maintained a common ground with the reader, and in this, too, his poetry has a classical air. He had no truck with self-expression but held to the great norm of communication, the ancient relationship of poet and hearer whereby there was a sharing of the poetic experience. “Only just as much as we can communicate is literature,” he said at the New School for Social Research.
I noted above that Frost in applying his principle of growth in the development of organic form observed the humanistic law of probability. Around him the romanticists were indulging in the cult of self expression. With the encouragement of such critics as J.E. Spingarn, the romanticists of the second and third decades of our century were cultivating spontaneity and originality and genius. They made a cult of wonderful possibilities, and propagated a doctrine of personal expansiveness. This was alien to Frost’s conservative temperament. He was drawn to the probable story and away from the improbable though possible story. In North of Boston and his other books of the 1914-1930 period, he was the poet of the common in man and nature, not the exploiter of the unique and wonderful. In these books he was an observer of another law of humanistic art—the much misunderstood and misrepresented law of decorum or measure or proportion. His feeling for decorous proportion was yet another classical trait.
The range of Frost’s poetry is humanistic. He has written only one poem that could be called naturalistic in the literary sense. That is the terrible “Out, Out-” about the severance of a boy’s hand by a buzz saw; the boy dies from the shock. “No more to build on there. And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” This could well have been an incident in a raw, violent novel of the school of Zola. At the other extreme from naturalism is the religious poem, “The Trial by Existence,” which appeared in A Boy’s Will, the only poem by Frost I would call religious. The point I wish to make is that all the space between the raw naturalism of “Out, Out-” and the religious insight of “Trial by Existence” has been occupied by Frost, and this space may properly be called the humanistic range.
Mark Van Doren has defined the range of Frost better than any other critic, and I have read almost all of the critical writing about Frost. “Mr. Frost’s place,” Van Doren said in his well-titled essay, “The Permanence of Robert Frost,” “is and always has been singularly central. His range has been great enough to carry him close to all the corners, yet he has never quite crossed a line. He has always, in a kind of silence, and with a most remarkable integrity, kept to his center.” Frost’s way, Van Doren explained, “consists in occupying or touching both extremes at once, and inhabiting all the space between. [It] consists in finding that golden mean which, far from signifying that the extremes have been avoided, signifies that they have been enclosed and contained.”
A poem by Emerson was often used by the New Humanists to epitomize their doctrine of life and letters.
There are two laws discrete
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.
Frost was no systematic philosopher, as Babbitt was, but in “The White-Tailed Hornet or The Revision of Theories” he too wrote an epitome of the dualistic philosophy of the New Humanists, although it is unlikely that he thought he was doing so. The poem is about the fallibility of the instinct of the hornet who cannot recognize the friendly approach of a human being and mistakes nailheads and huckleberries for flies and finally misses the real fly. Turning didactic, the poet writes:
Won’t this whole instinct matter hear revision?
Won’t almost any theory bear revision?
To err is human, not to, animal.
Or so we pay the compliment to instinct,
Only too liberal of our compliment
That really takes away instead of gives.
Our worship, humor, conscientiousness
Went long since to the dogs under the table.
And served us right for having instituted
Downward comparisons. As long on earth
As our comparisons were stoutly upward
With gods and angels, we were men at least,
But little lower than the gods and angels.
But once comparisons were yielded downward,
Once we began to see our images
Reflected in the mud and even dust,
‘Twas disillusion upon disillusion.
We were lost piecemeal to the animals.
Like people thrown out to delay the wolves.
Nothing but fallibility was left to us,
And this day’s work made even that seem doubtful.
Here Frost states his resistance to the downward comparisons of Rousseau and Freud and Zola; here he pays tribute to the upward comparisons of renaissance humanism which inherited them from religion.
Neither Rousseauistic nor Baconian is Frost in his view of nature, “I wouldn’t be a prude afraid of nature,” Frost declared in “New Hampshire,” and again in the same poem he said: “I’d hate to be a runaway from nature.” The nature in Frost’s poetry is that of a poet who is really deeply versed in country things.
Frost botanized on many a long walk, and on night walks he studied the heavens and Nature. Let the Romanticists attribute human feeling to nature. Let them conceive of nature as impulse and temperament. Let them mean by a return to nature just letting themselves go. Rejecting romanticism, Frost reveals his humanistic temper in his well-known poem, “On the Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” This poem tells about a farmhouse that burned down and the barn that was falling down. The birds came through the barn’s broken windows and nested inside. For man these ruins were saddening but not to the birds.
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
A romantic poet would have sighed over the ruins of human habitation, but Frost, accepting nature as lovely and fair, is aware of her unconcern for man’s misfortune and disasters. The birds have taken possession of the old place and the lilac renews its leaf for them, as does the aged elm, but Nature grieves not for man. To be versed in country things is to be guarded against a serious use of the pathetic fallacy—Frost sometimes jestingly uses it—but it is to observe distinctions, and Frost’s sense of demarcation between Man and Nature is humanistic-classical in the Irving Babbitt sense.
The clearest understanding of Frost’s attitude toward Nature may be gained from his poem, “The Most of It.” One might fairly say that in the first eight lines of this remarkable poem a romantic demand on Nature is made.
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-laden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love hack in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
The poem then gives the answer to the romanticist’s yearning demand.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbush—and that was all.
Frost was like an intelligent Greek, New Humanists said, because he was of a positive and critical turn of mind. He came by this turn of mind from the New England culture he had inherited. Born in Mark Twain’s America—in San Francisco in 1874—Frost had been brought east in 1885 to be educated in Emerson’s New England. (Mark Twain was gone from San Francisco by 1874 and Emerson had died in 1882 but San Francisco and New England retained much of the character they had while these men were on the scene.) Frost’s ancestors had come to New England more than two centuries earlier, and one of them had been an Indian fighter. Frost’s formative life experiences took place in a simplified world, the world of the New England farmer from about 1885 to about 1915, and it was in this rural culture that he evolved his classical outlook.
Lawrance Thompson, who is Frost’s authorized biographer-apparent, has said that Frost “knows from long experience that strong men and women will work out a life that is good in that stubborn contest with rocky soil and short summers…. As a New Hampshire farmer himself in the early years, Frost lived with neighbors of all classes, many of them his superiors in their ability to make a simple but sufficient living out of a little. He has never forgotten his respect and admiration for the courage and self-dependence he saw about him during those years. The rigorous trial by existence in rural communities requires ability and cunning if life is to go on…. But the soil has its own peculiar virtue for those who have been hurt and healed by the accidents of choice and circumstances. And Frost has given expression in his poems to that inner strength and satisfaction which comes from living close to the soil.”
“Me for the hills where I don’t have to choose,” Frost said in 1923 when invited to face the complex and tormenting questions of modern urban civilization.
This interpretation of Frost as the most purely classical poet of our times has been dismissed by Yvor Winters in an essay entitled “Robert Frost: or, the Spiritual Drifter as Poet” (1957). “Frost has been praised as a classical poet,” Winters noted, “but he is not classical in any sense which I can understand”—a most surprising remark to come from a critic who has conned Babbit, as Winters has. “Like many of his contemporaries, he is an Emersonian Romantic,” Winters continued. “A standard exemplar of irresponsible Romantic Irony,” Winters said of Frost as he warmed to his attack; “he believes that impulse is trustworthy and reason contemptible…. Frost is at his worst in didactic writing, in spite of his fondness for it: his ideas are impossible and his style is exceptionally shoddy.”
Surely this is wrongheaded criticism, and indeed the whole Winters essay ought to be dismissed without rebuttal as a curious example of perverse and arbitrary judgment—just about what one would expect from a critic who is capable of referring to “the Frosts and the Thoreaus, the amateur anarchists and village eccentrics.” However, an explanation—or an attempted explanation—of Winters’ misreading of certain Frost poems will serve to establish even more firmly the interpretation of Frost as a classical-humanist poet.
As an example of Winters’ unfairness, we might start with his reduction of Frost’s sound of sense to an endeavor “to make his style approximate as closely as possible the style of conversation…I see no reason why poetry should be called upon to imitate conversation. Conversation is the most careless and formless of human utterance; it is spontaneous and unrevised, and its vocabulary is commonly limited.” Now one may speak with approval of a conversational prose style—the style of Laurence Sterne, for example—but Frost never spoke of conversation as imitable by poets. (We are, of course, far beyond the terms of the “advertisement” of the Lyrical Ballads that spoke of the Wordsworth-Coleridge experiment to ascertain “how far the language of conversation is adapted for the purposes of poetic pleasure.”) Frost called his lyrics “talk-songs,” and he had pregnant things to say about speech-rhythms and tones of voice and “the audible page.” Sounds are what he was concerned with—the sound that sense in speech makes—and it is decidedly odd that Winters should so carefully refrain from saying the style of speech and insist upon the style of conversation, as when he says: “the conversational manner will naturally suit a poet who takes all experience so casually, and it is only natural that the conversational manner should often become very conversational indeed.” Frost’s style is related to utterance, and “conversational manner” dilutes the idea of utterance and substitutes for it the idea of relaxed, informal, and vagrant discourse between persons.
How can we account for Winters’ choice of the imprecise word to characterize Frost’s manner? Is it because he wishes to show that Frost’s poems are imprecise in denotation? But they are not imprecise on the denotative level. Of “The Road Not Taken,” Winters says that this poem has for its theme “the whimsical, accidental, and incomprehensible nature of the formative decision.” It “is the poem of a man whom one might fairly call a spiritual drifter; and a spiritual drifter is unlikely to have either the intelligence or the energy to become a major poet.” “The Road Not Taken” has, according to Winters, a “quality of uncertainty and incomprehension” and a “vague melancholy.” This seems plausible enough if one’s memory of “The Road Not Taken” has weakened; but turn back for a fresh reading and you will be astounded at what Winters has read into the poem that is simply not there.
The poem is not about a drifter. It is about a traveler in a yellow wood—and one thinks of Thoreau who had said he had traveled much in Concord, Thoreau being an author-naturalist of great appeal to Frost. The traveler comes to diverging roads in a yellow wood and wishes he could “travel both and be one traveler,” for they are of nearly equal attraction. He takes a long time to decide which road he will take. One seems a little less traveled by, but only a little less; still this is enough of a consideration to sway the decision of the traveler. He tells himself that on another day he can return and take the first road. But he has enough experience in living to know that a decision of direction puts one on a course that leads on and on, and thus he doubts that he shall ever come back to the fork in the road. It will be a decision that actualizes one potentiality in living while keeping the other potentiality inactual—and that, of course, will make a difference.
It may be irrefutably argued that the profound thought of this poem is a dictum of Denis Saurat: “There are two parts in every being: the Actual, which is the expressed, and the Inactual, which is the unexpressed, and they grow together, infinitely, the one out of the other.”
What is denoted in this poem is a traveler who makes a deliberate decision based upon a specific consideration to follow a certain course, knowing that in the future he may regret not having followed an almost equally appealing course but the decision not to take the other course has made “all the difference.”
As Saurat has put it, “every existence is infinite; every expression is limited. The expression of any thought or being is necessarily incomplete.” Furthermore, “there is in every being the instinct of concentration: of the necessity to choose and reject.”
Where in this poem can one read into it a “spiritual drifter”? Or detect the “whimsical, accidental, and incomprehensible nature of the formative decision”? And why should there be objection to the faint melancholy of the last stanza? Do we not all sigh over the inactual part of our lives even while we may be experiencing psychological well-being from the fulfilled potentialities?
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things…
Winters performs an even more extraordinary twisting of the meaning of a poem when he discovers romanticism in “The Bear.” Let us recall the structure of this fable. It consists of a twelve-line preface, an extended simile, and a two-line conclusion. A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom, Frost has remarked, and the preface is delightful—a humorous, imagistic picture of the progress cross country of an uncaged female bear. Frost starts with an animal incident that is entertaining in itself, and he seems unconcerned about where the bear’s fall cross country will lead her. By way of forceful transition to the main body of the poem, the poet remarks that “The world has room to make a bear feel free; / The universe seems cramped to you and me.”
Besides being entertaining in itself, the preface has a limited function: It is to set up a contrast between the free bear’s behavior and the behavior of the caged bear who is one term in the simile that constitutes most of the poem. Man is the other term.
Man in the simile is not related at all to the preface. The caged hear is related by contrast to the preface, but man is unrelated. “Man acts more like the poor bear in a cage / That all day fights a nervous inward rage, / His mood rejecting all his mind suggests.” Modern man, the poet says, lives in a state of conflict between mind and feeling. His science brings him no stability of mind. He is pesudo religious. He is changeable and fickle in his philosophy. Emotionally restless, intellectually shallow, modern man paces back and forth between metaphysical extremes in his cage, and “never rests the toe-nail click and shuffle of his feet.”
The poet sums up his fable in a jest:
A baggy figure, equally pathetic
When sedentary and when peripatetic.
Here is Winters’ summary of “The Bear.”
The poem compares the wild bear to the bear in a cage; the uncaged bear is a creature of free impulse and is compared by implication to man as he would be were he guided by impulse; and the caged bear is compared to rational man as he is…. Frost tells us in this poem that reasoning man is ridiculous because he appears to labor and to change his mind; and he implies that impulsive man would he a wiser and a nobler creature. [Italics mine]
I have searched this poem repeatedly, and there is no implication, such as Winters alleges, to be found. Certainly there is no implication in the prefatory lines that “man as he would be were he guided by impulse” would be like the uncaged bear, and “would be a wiser and nobler creature.” “Man,” the poem proceeds to say, “acts more like the poor hear in a cage”—can it be that Winters rests his whole case on the word “more”? Does “more” hint at any implication of the sort that Winters asserts? One cannot say that it does. Winters may rest his case on the reading that “more” implies that man is the other term in the unexpressed comparison with the free, impulsive bear; but this comparison is simply not implied by the adverb.
The reader’s attention was called to the qualification of the “man” of Frost’s poem who becomes in Winters’ paraphrase “rational man” (suggesting the eighteenth century man of reason?) and “reasoning man.” This again is to alter the satire of Frost. Frost is satirizing man, a pathetic, divided creature, his mind and heart at war, who feels cramped in the universe. He is satirizing not an abstraction called “rational man” hut modern man as he is today without a key to the enigmas of the world. How inadequate it is to say that “Frost tells us in this poem that reasoning man is ridiculous because he appears to labor and change his mind.” Frost tells us much more, and he regards man as pathetic as well as ridiculous.
Winters, it is plain, tries to get too much out of Frost’s metaphors. Disregarding Frost’s warning that every metaphor breaks down somewhere, Winters presses and distorts Frost’s metaphors to make them yield an extreme romantic attitude.
This business of correcting Winters’ forced readings becomes boring. It is untrue to say that “the feeling of the poem [“Tree at My Window”] is one of a melancholy longing to share the dream like experience more fully.” It distorts the meaning of “The Times Table” to say that “the poem deals with a farmer who is given to commenting [sic] on death”; what Frost reproves is the farmer’s futile habit of sighing over death. But the climax of Winters’ almost willful misunderstanding is reached in his comment on Frost’s choice of an epitaph:
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Weakly sentimental, says Winters. He then proceeds to over-emphasize the shallowness of the quarrels of lovers, forgetting that it is the depth of love that makes the quarrel shallow. Frost has a fundamental love of the world that subordinates his tragic sense, but it is presumptuous of Winters to read Frost a lesson on the evil of the world and impertinent when he warns Frost that “the evil had better he recognized and taken seriously.” “With Frost, however, the sense of the comic in life goes hand in hand with the sense of the tragic,” as Lawrance Thompson has well observed. “Frost’s sense of humor,” Thompson added, “is able to accept with calmness the sense of tragedy forever present in any inclusive attitude toward life.” In short, Frost’s optimism should not and indeed cannot be separated “from the underlying obbligato of sadness and tragic realization.”
One may recommend to deadly serious critics of the ilk of Winters a couplet written by Frost after many years of suffering from their humorlessness:
It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling
To get adapted to my kind of fooling.
That mischievous tone of teasing which one hears in “To a Thinker” and “The Lesson for Today” has diverted Winters from the wisdom of Frost’s own thought on style. Winters would have Frost an “Emersonian Romantic”; he would make him an exemplar of that school of romanticism that Irving Babbitt traced back to Rousseau. But this is too systematic for Frost, just as the New Humanism is too systematic for him. Frost does not belong to the schools. That is not to say, however, that Lawrance Thompson is wrong in asserting that Frost occupies a middle position in life and letters, that he maintains a critical position in the Golden Mean, that he adheres “to the position in the Golden Mean from which these two halves [of human life] may be contemplated.” This is one way of saying that Frost’s attitude toward life is humanistic; it is a way of saying that Frost has the humanistic temper; and it is his attitude and temper, that made Frost feel in the twenties that he had Written several books against the world in general.
When I visited Frost at Amherst in 1927, I found him, to my surprise, quite opposed to the educational policy of Alexander Meiklejohn, who had been president of Amherst College from 1912 to 1924. This was surprising for two reasons. One: I knew that it had been Meiklejohn who had ruled in 1917 that Frost’s lack of any academic degree didn’t matter and had appointed him an ad interim full professor of English. Two: I knew that Frost had himself been a teacher of marked originality, and I thought that a Meiklejohn-run college would be a congenial environment for him. But I learned that Frost had complained of “Meiklejaundice” during the three years (1917-1920) he had served under the experimental educator and had repeatedly wanted to resign. Finally he had gone off to the University of Michigan but had returned to Amherst on Meiklejohn’s departure. “Meiklejaundice,” I gathered, was romanticism in higher education.
Meiklejohn had been gone four years when I spent my first weekend with Frost, but it was repetitiously evident that his theory and practice still stuck in the poet’s craw, for he talked against them persistently and took a lively, hopeful interest in the presidential succession at Amherst (George Daniels Olds was resigning and Arthur Stanley Pease was in the offing). Frost conceded that the English-born Meiklejohn, who had been a professor of philosophy at Brown, was brilliant, but he doubted him as a thinker and as administrator. Meiklejohn had put his liberal radical views on education into two books: The Liberal College (1920) and Freedom and the College (1923); but Frost preferred the educational philosophy of Olds and Pease and sided with the faculty conservatives in their resistance to Meiklejohn.
There had been a real rift when Meiklejohn had been dismissed by the trustees and faculty. A number of professors had resigned, too, or had been dropped, and some members of the graduating class of 1923 had publicly declined their diplomas. Frost blamed Meiklejohn for the dissension in the faculty. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant reports Frost as saying that Meiklejohn was “too high-minded for any modus vivendi” with the middle-of-the-road professors.
Frost took pains to see that I met two of his friends on the Amherst faculty. Handsome English professor George F. Whicher came to tea, and at the faculty club I had a long talk with Professor G.R. Elliott, who was then writing The Cycle of Modern Poetry and sought advice about a publisher. Elliott revealed to me a strong religious interest, and was later to declare that Irving Babbitt, “a rigorous moral humanist of New England, has indirectly done much for the best interests of religion.”
Ezra Pound was even more of a topic than Meiklejohn in my first long session with Frost. I thought that Frost was prompted to reminisce about Pound because I had discussed Pound the night before in a lecture to Amherst students, but I soon found that Frost wanted his biographer to know that he felt deep gratitude to our expatriate poet. I could see that he was ambivalent toward Pound but I noted few signs of hostility whereas he frankly confessed to the state of being fascinated by the young master.
Frost had been writing poetry for twenty years without recognition until Pound wrote his review of A Boy’s Will for London and Chicago literary magazines. He had been published perhaps a dozen times in American magazines and he had a devoted reader in Mrs. Frost, but he had been pretty often rejected all these years, and he had been deeply hurt in his isolation. (To his dying day he never allowed the later editors of The Atlantic Monthly to forget that the Atlantic declined his poems in the eighteen-nineties.) Nor had he experienced any literary fellowship until he went to London in 1912. Of a literary milieu—of bookshops for poetry lovers, of cafes for writers, of lectures and readings, of studio teas and summer colonies, of editorial sessions and group-anthologies, of parties and Bohemia—Frost had known nothing. Pound immediately recognized the genuineness of Frost’s poetry and introduced him—at the age of thirty-nine—to literary London; Frost, who had been starving for recognition, ate unforgettably of the nourishing food of corroboration of his gift. . .
Pound’s London review of A Boy’s Will appeared in The New Freewoman on September 1, 1913, and his recognition of Frost has the air of being “dashed off.”
Mr. Frost’s Book…has the tang of the New Hampshire woods, and it has just this utter simplicity…. This man has the good sense to speak naturally and to paint the thing, the thing as he sees it…. One reads the books for the ‘tone’, which is homely, by intent, and pleasing, never doubting that it comes direct from his own life…. He is without shame and without affectation.
Thus was the first phase of the criticism of Frost opened, the phase that began with Pound’s excited discovery of a new American poet and culminated in Mark Van Doren’s fine essay in 1936, “The Permanence of Robert Frost.” James M. Cox has noted that “when Richard Thornton in 1937 made the first collection of Frost criticism he wisely entitled the volume Recognition of Robert Frost. The collection, essentially a commemorative one honoring Frost’s twenty-five years of achievement, was nevertheless fairly representative of the criticism he had received. It showed that during those twenty-five years, though he had been recognized as a poet, his poetry had yet to be appraised.” This is a fair description of the criticism of Frost in the 1920’s. The critics’ recognition of Frost and the public’s recognition of him in buying his books were in step with each other, were truly pari passu, in that decade.
Recognition of Frost by the bestowal of honors was also begun in the twenties. The chief of these was the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry awarded him in 1924 for New Hampshire, published the previous year. In 1930, as the decade ended in the onset of a vast economic engulfment, a Collected Poems was published to signalize the solid reputation of the poet.
One might expect some reaction against this chorus of praise for the poet Frost, and it came as the decade died from the rapidly rising urban critic, Edmund Wilson, who objected to the overrating, as he regarded it, of the poet of rural New England. “Robert Frost,” Wilson said with disdain for supporting his judgment, “has a thin but authentic vein of sensibility; but I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse.”
I have no doubt that this summary judgment made Frost angry, if it was brought to his attention. Frost was no reader of reviews but somehow unflattering notices did reach him and provoke him to oblique replies in talk with friends. Thus, when Rolfe Humphries called him in The New Masses “a counter-revolutionary poet,” words I am sure Humphries would like to have taken back in later years—Frost was quick to retort privately that Humphries must be a “bargain-counter-revolutionary poet.”
I very quickly became acquainted with the angry side of Robert Frost, and at first it astonished me. The new literary generation of the twenties was friendly toward him, but he had no feeling of solidarity with them. He had been one of the advisory editors of The Seven Arts; he had been unintelligently touted by Amy Lowell as a figure of the New Poetry; Waldo Frank had seen him as a precursor of “Our America.” But Frost was hostile, as he showed in the satire of “New Hampshire,” to the liberal drift of the new generation. One of the journalistic buglers of the liberal writers who were coming to dominate the literary scene was Burton Rascoe, who ran in the New York Herald Tribune a diary of his comings and goings in literary society. He had made a remark about Frost that the perhaps hypersensitive poet interpreted as a reflection upon his character. My surprise was great when Frost showed his resentment and told me that he had thought of going to New York to use his fists on the brash journalist.
It was quite noticeable that Frost had no praise for living poets. He never mentioned Edwin Arlington Robinson in all the talks I had with him between 1926 and 1934. He did say that Wallace Stevens, who had been in his class at Harvard but unknown to him at the time, made a formal garden in the wilderness of life, and he once expressed a liking for Thomas Hornsby Ferril. He was impatient with Louis Utermeyer’s marital changes and reversals but said never a word about his verse or criticism. That is all I can remember of his references to contemporary poets. I dedicated my modest biography of Frost to Hart Crane “in memory of many enthusiastic conversations about poetry” and in time, in a roundabout way, I heard that Frost had said that the only thing about my book he disliked was the dedication to Crane.
Nor did Frost express any esteem for the new prose writers of the twenties. He derided the novels of Sinclair Lewis “Sinkler” or “Sink” Lewis, he called him. But he liked detective and mystery fiction, and was the first to tell me about the Philo Vance stories of S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright).
Frost’s jealousy of living poets was understandable although unexpected by his friends, who early came to regard him as a poet without rivals. We must remember that from 1892 to 1912—twenty years—Frost had been denied publication so many times while poets he knew to be his inferiors were being repeatedly published that he contracted a deep-seated jealousy. It required decades of reassurance of his acceptance for jealousy to run its course.
All these—the resentment of criticism, the anger at the new literary liberalism, the jealousy of his contemporaries—were premonitory symptoms of the massively angry Frost who was to emerge fully in the 1930’s and to threaten to become a reactionary poet—but never went the distance to reaction.
Had any poet in America achieved by 1930 a more secure position than Frost? He was fifty-six years old and had published five volumes of poems garnered from thirty-five years of mature devotion to his craft. He had extended his range from the early lyrics of A Boy’s Will through the dramatic narratives of North of Boston to the symbolic and philosophic poems of West-Running Brook. He was New England’s poet in the great line from Longfellow and Emerson—and no one (except Edmund Wilson) doubted his permanence. Would poems like “The Pasture,” “The Death of the Hired Hand,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Acquainted with the Night” ever disappear from the anthologies? Surely Frost could face the new decade of change—and everyone knew times would change in the thirties—with the utmost feeling of security in his place in literary history.
Yet Frost was entering the black decade of his life. His personal life was to be filled with grief and death. The rural culture of 1885 to 1915, the rich soil from which his poems had drawn their nourishment, was to diminish and grow impoverished before his eyes as he drove his old automobile across the depressed New England states. The great passage of America from a rural to an urban civilization went on inexorably while Frost protested and satirized the New Deal and industrial collectivist trends. And leadership in poetry appeared to pass to T.S. Eliot. Frost was embittered and despairing—but went on writing and creating some of his finest poems. He called his book in 1936 A Further Range, and it indubitably was.
After the dreadful decade was over, it was seen that Frost had grown from a regional poet to a national poet. The forties were to be for Frost a decade of recovery. In the fifties he achieved a status unimaginable by his admirers in the twenties: He became the national bard. He could well have stopped growing in the 1920’s. Not many writers, especially not many poets, surpass after the age of fifty-six the achievements of their middle life—but Frost did. He extended and deepened his achievement. Nothing that we critics wrote of him in the twenties can be stretched enough to encompass the national bardic poet who wrote “A Record Stride,” “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” “The Gift Outright,” “Choose Something Like a Star,” “A Masque of Reason,” and “A Masque of Mercy.”
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Volume 8, No. 3, 1964).
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