Robert Frost’s theory goes to the heart of his entire aesthetic philosophy and conception of art, and is ultimately a vital part of his great skill and power both as a conversationalist and poet, and in his metaphorical habits of thought as a philosophical dualist: “I was poetry that talked.”
From around 1913 until Robert Frost’s death in January 1963, almost everyone who knew him personally agreed that he was among the most brilliant, provocative, learned, and original conversationalists of the twentieth century. Two of his English friends during 1912-1914, Wilfred Gibson and John W. Haines, have recorded how all his power of colloquial eloquence burst through his pent-up accumulated experience of life and literature, evidencing the splendid conversationalist who later greatly impressed so many persons throughout his adult life.
During the 1920s Louis Untermeyer, Raymond Holden, Wilfred E. Davison, and Julius John Lankes, among others, recorded visits with Frost in which his unique greatness as a talker impressed them most forcefully. Reginald L. Cook, a close friend of Frost for thirty-seven years, called him “the master of the riposte, humanly exulting in superior feats of wit,” and pronounced him “one of the greatest talkers of his time.” Similarly, Louis Mertins, who had many long talks with the poet during the 1930s and 1940s, concluded that “Frost was one of the greatest conversationalists of the twentieth century, as Aristotle was of the Golden Age of Greek culture.” My own experience with Frost as a conversationalist, mainly in his cabin at the Homer Noble Farm near Bread Loaf, during the summers of 1939-1944 and in 1961 and 1962, but also on occasions in Boston, Ann Arbor, and Detroit, convinced me that he was a man of great imagination, wit, and humor, that his intellectual brilliance was beyond dispute, that he possessed immense learning in many subjects, and that he was without peer as a raconteur. After several conversations with Frost at Bread Loaf in August 1941, William Carlos Williams confirmed my view of Frost as a conversationalist: “He’s a good talker, witty, loaded with information and well able to take care of himself anywhere, anytime.” Very late in the poet’s life, after an interview with him, John Ciardi recorded that they had “talked till midnight” and again “the next morning…. It was great talk…. It always is when Mr. Frost warms to it, for he is certainly one of the master conversationalists of this age.” Such abstract testimonies to Frost’s powers of conversation could be multiplied many times over, but none of them answers the crucial questions that inevitably arise—how did Frost become such an outstanding conversationalist; how is his conversation related to his conception of poetry and creative practice as a poet; and, finally, how does his talk reveal vital aspects of his philosophical beliefs, centered in his dualism? To answer these queries an account of the natural history of his genesis and development as a poet yields some important insights into his nature as a conversationalist.
The earliest evidence that conversation was to be a vital element in Robert Frost’s life and art is provided, ironically, not by the poet but by Elinor White, his future wife. In 1892, when she and Frost graduated as co-valedictorians at Lawrence High School in Massachusetts, her valedictory address was titled “Conversation as a Force in Life.” Undoubtedly, along with their mutual physical, mental, and emotional attraction, and their love of poetry, Elinor and Robert Frost shared a faith in the art of living in and through good conversation.
Whether or not Frost took his cue on the importance of good talk from his wife, there is no doubt that from early manhood until his death the poet believed that next to poetry itself, the art of conversation with sophisticated literary friends was the great social, aesthetic, and intellectual passion of his life. During the summers of 1915 and 1916, Morris P. Tilley, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, was Frost’s neighbor near Franconia, New Hampshire, and recorded: “He believes that conversation with friends has given him the moments of highest joy, greater than that of book. Fortunately, the dramatic moment of epiphany in Frost’s life as a poet is provided by him, when he experienced during a conversation with a preacher-friend of his patrons, Susan and Reverend William Hayes Ward, the aesthetic revelation of how, general, his conversation was related his early poetry.
Frost’s sudden flash of insight intuitive understanding occurred in 1895, at age twenty-one. It was like a divine revelation to one of God’s elect, because it provided him with the essential principle and objective of his whole aesthetic theory and future practice as poet. It is necessary to quote Frost’s whole lengthy passage on this event, reported retrospectively, because it reveals how his response led him to whether his revolutionary perception was valid, by examining the whole tradition of major English poets with theory in mind, and also because it illuminates the reason for the enormous difference between A Boy’s Will (1913), and North of Boston (1914), and all Frost’s subsequent poetry, with its conscious emphasis upon structured form:
Perhaps when that preacher friend Ward’s looked me up shortly after first poem appeared in The Independent and talked to me about it, something providential was happening to me. Sure the old gentleman didn’t have slightest idea he was having any effect a very stubborn youngster who thought he knew what he knew. But something said actually changed the whole course of my writing. It all became purposeful.
One day as we talked he said to me when he read my poems it was just hearing me talk. I didn’t know until what it was I was after. When he said to me it all became clear. I was poetry that talked. If my poems were talking poems—if to read one of them heard a voice—that would be to my writing! So, I went to the great poets, Chaucer and Shakespeare to Coleridge and Wordsworth. And looked for this thing in their lines. I will admit, when have been quoted on the matter I been made to speak rather mistily. For one thing must always be kept in mind: Whenever I write a line it is because the line has already spoken clearly by a voice within my mind, an audible voice.
There has been a great hue and cry raised over what I have had to say regarding voice posturing, or as I have sometimes called it, the sound of sense. When I first began to write poetry—before the illumination of what possibilities there are in the sound of sense came to me—I was writing largely, though not exclusively, after the patterns of the past. For every poet begins that way—following some pattern, or group of patterns. It is only when he has outgrown the pattern and sees clearly for himself his own way that he has really started to become. You may go back to all those early poems of mine in A Boy’s Will, and some that are left out of it. You will find me there using the traditional cliche. Even “Into My Own” has an “as’t were.” In “Stars” there is a line “O’er the tumultuous snow”; while in my very first poem, “My Butterfly,” I was even guilty of “theeing” and “thouing,” a crime I have not committed since…. The young poet is prone to echo all the pleasing sounds he has heard in his scattered reading. He is apt to look on the musical value of the lines, the metrical perfection, as all that matters. He has not listened for the voice within his mind, speaking the lines and giving them the value of sound.
There is another angle to this. It is suggested by a proneness to the unique. It is the value of current words in writing poetry. It has been a long time since I consciously fell into any of the cliche so common in verse. It has been a long time since I used any word not common in everyday speech. For example, I would never think of using the word “casement” for window in general. Whenever I have used that word, which I have occasionally, it was because I was writing about that kind of a window—never for window as such. In this, perhaps, I have unconsciously tried to do just what Chaucer did when the language was young and untried and verile. I have sought only those words I had met up with as a boy in New Hampshire, working on farms during the summer vacations. I listened to the men with whom I worked, and found that I could make out their conversation as they talked together out of ear-shot, even when I had not plainly heard the words they spoke. When I started to carry their conversation over into poetry, I could hear their voices, and the sound posture differentiated between one and the other. It was the sense of sound I have been talking about. In some sort of way like this I have been able to write poetry, where characters talk, and, though not without infinite pains, to make it plain to the reader which character is saying the lines, without having to place his name before it, as is done in the drama.
Because I have been, what some might call, careless about the so-called proper beat and rhythm of my lines, there have been those who think I write free verse. Now, I am not dead set against vers libre; but you know there is no idea you cannot express beautifully and satisfactorily in the iambic pentameter. Much of my verse is written in this form—blank, unrimed verse. I have always maintained that it takes form to properly perform, and free verse has no form, and so its performance is meager…. The greatest freedom poetry can attain is having form, a frame, to work in. Free verse is batting a ball into space and wondering why it doesn’t return to the batter. Poetry written in form is like batting a ball against the side of a wall and feeling it return to the bat. A picture frame with its four simple lines is necessary to the showing of a picture. Try it and see. The frame thus becomes a part, even, of the picture.
This long passage contains practically all of the essential elements necessary to understand Frost’s early development as a poet, including the enormous differences in diction, tone, and forms between the lyric poems in A Boy’s Will and the narrative-dramatic poems in North of Boston. But the discovery in 1895 that what he was consciously after was “poetry that talked” required Frost to become a master conversationalist first, quite apart from his poetry. Over the next twenty years, up to around 1915, he developed simultaneously as a conversationalist and a poet whose control of “voice posturing” by fictional characters in a dramatic setting provided the tone and “sound of sense” in the subtle shades of meaning in his poems.
During Frost’s decade in Derry, he had to pursue his theory and practice between good talk and poetry in isolation, because there was no sophisticated literary person with whom he could discuss his aesthetic ideas. Yet he greatly enriched his germinal belief in conversational poetry in a variety of ways. Frost was briefly a friend to John Hall, a local semi-literate farmer whose mother-wit language greatly appealed to him. Lawrance Thompson has noted Hall’s influence on Frost’s theory of language in poetry:
He became fascinated by Hall’s witty, picturesque, backcountry way of implying meaning through sly inflections and modulations of voice. They gave color and bite to the sound of sense. As a flattering tribute to Hall and other north-of-Boston farmers, Frost had gradually modified his way of talking. He deliberately imitated the manner in which his neighbors unconsciously slurred words, dropped endings and clipped sentences.
For about a decade Frost continued to perfect his conscious art of talking like a New Hampshire farmer, so that both in his conversation and in his poetry written in Derry he was exploring the various ways of converting colloquial speech into a new art form. In 1907, after Frost had begun teaching at Pinkerton Academy, he revised the curriculum in English studies, recommending for the improvement of the students “to teach them the satisfaction of superior speech.” Since superior speech came close to the essence of drama in poetry, Frost advocated that “expression in oral reading… is made the test of appreciation.” During the school year 1909-1910, Frost directed his prize students who published the Pinkerton Critic to present five plays: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Milton’s Comus, Sheridan’s The Rivals, and Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire and Cathleen Houlihan. Frost adapted and compressed these plays, deleted what he called “rhetorical passages” and replaced them with “speaking passages,” thus stripping them down to their essential form for colloquial presentation on the stage. All this editing and re-writing strengthened his growing conviction that all writing was good only to the extent that it was dramatic, and that “all the fun’s in how you say a thing.” To Frost, closet drama, meant only for silent reading with eye, was totally displaced by drama speakers on the stage. More and more during his years Derry and at Pinkerton Academy, Frost came to harmonize the concept of poet as conversationalist and the conversationalist as poet. Indeed, he came to believe that good conversation almost as much an art as poetry itself. Good poetry is practically synonymous with good dramatic talk, so too does good talk acquire the essential character of poetry. Frost once told Louis Mertins that “he had his first experience in listening to genuine conversation when he heard A E [George Russell] Yeats talk together in Ireland.” Mertins summarized the close reciprocal relationship Frost had come to perceive between poetry and good conversation:
Whenever Frost in after years had occasion to refer to that visit to Eire [in 1928], it was not of the Irish landscape, or Irish farming, or of the Irish peasantry, of the Sinn Feiners, or of the Eire Republic, or of de Valera that he talked. These things scarcely formed a backdrop. It was always of the other-worldly conversation he held with the two Irish mystics—men of the older Ireland—such he said, ‘as nowhere else on earth have he ever heard the like of. These men took ordinary conversation and lifted it into the realm of pure literature.’ 
Like these Irish poets, Frost himself, during a lifetime of talks with friends, often lifted ordinary conversation into the realm of pure literature. The main difference between dramatic poetry in monologues or dialogues and his conversations with friends was that his poetry was cast in traditional literary structured forms, such as sonnets, odes, lyric stanzas, and blank verse narratives, and in the techniques of meter, rhythm, and rhyme, whereas good conversation was much more loose, whimsical, discursive, and delivered intuitively by speaking spontaneously to the present moment. Frost was well aware that his years on the Derry farm and as a teacher at Pinkerton Academy was his period of apprenticeship as a poet, a time of fruitful germination and strong development, when he came into his own and consciously acquired his personal voice in poetry. He and his wife Elinor knew that he was a true poet, but by 1912, at age thirty-eight, despite strenuous efforts to become known, he had received very little public recognition.
He knew that he had to do something decisive and dramatic, to declare himself for a life of poetry, so that he would not be reduced to the ranks of a routine academician teaching English in public education. When he was offered a teaching position at the Normal School in Plymouth, New Hampshire, for the academic year 1911-1912, he accepted with the provision that he could resign after one year. In August 1912 he consciously gathered himself together to make “the long deferred forward movement” to fulfill his career as a poet. His grandfather’s will and annuity, and the sale of his Derry farm provided the money needed, and late in the summer, Frost and his family left Boston for Glasgow and then settled in Beaconsfield, England, where he began the process of the great harvest he desired for his poetry. Frost was acutely aware that in going to Britain he was returning, as to a homecoming, to his ancestral roots, both in his family and in his literary life. As a young woman his mother had migrated to Ohio from Scotland, and his father’s family were descendants of immigrants to New England from seven generations ago. The literary language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and the long and rich tradition of English poetry were deeply rooted in his psyche, so that he experienced joy and satisfaction living near London. In retrospect he once remarked that living in old England made him more aware of New England than ever before. His literary experience in England, in coming to know and be known there by some of the outstanding poets of the pre-World War One era, and in having A Boy’s Will published in April 1913, and North of Boston in May 1914, proved absolutely decisive in shaping his entire future life as a poet. In a letter to Wilbur E. Rowell, July 17, 1913, Frost referred to A Boy’s Will as a “very personal” collection of poems, and stated that “practically all of it” was written “five years ago on the farm in Derry.” He repeated this statement in a letter to John Bartlett, November 5, 1919: “The first book… was mostly written on the farm before I attended school at Pinkerton.” But his discovery in 1895 that he was consciously after “poetry that talked” was not applied in practice in the poems of A Boy’s Will. Conventional literary rhetoric and archaic usage still dominated these early lyrics. Except for a few poems in this first collection, his revolutionary theory of language as spoken sounds in idiomatic and colloquial talk was first fulfilled in his second book. As he noted in a letter to John Bartlett on December 18, 1913:
In “North of Boston” you are to see me performing in a language absolutely unliterary. What I would like is to get so I would never use a word or combination of words that I hadn’t heard used in running speech. I bar words and expressions I have already seen. You do it on your ear. Of course I allow expressions I make myself. War on cliches.
Clearly, the great revolution in Frost’s poetry occurred between A Boy’s Will and North of Boston. Although, as Frost himself said, no poet ever wrote in order to fulfill a theory of writing, it is evident that in the decade or more before he went to England, he was consciously developing his theory of language as a vehicle for “correspondence” between a writer or speaker and his audience. His revolutionary conception of language applied not only to his poetry, but to all spoken and written prose sentences. In a letter to John Bartlett, February 22, 1914, he provided a definition of a sentence based not upon conventional rules of grammar and logic, but upon the meaning in sounds: “A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.” On May 18, 1914, Frost wrote to Sidney Cox that “the science of verse” as he perceived it in sentence structure applied to teaching: “The novelty if you didn’t miss it was the definition of a sentence which is calculated to revolutionize the teaching of literary composition in the next twenty ears.” As both a poet and a classroom teacher of composition, Frost believed that “oral reading” through a close attention to the “voice posturing” of speakers and their changes in “voice tones,” so natural without inflated literary rhetoric in actual conversation, was the most valid and effective method of conveying meaning in both writing and reading, whether poetry or prose. Soon after Frost was established and feeling at home in the literary circles of London, in an important letter to John Bartlett, significantly dated “Fourth-July,” 1913, he noted that his declaration of independence on his “letter head” showed “how far we have come’’ since he left Pinkerton Academy. His self-conscious personal independence from the common beliefs and practices of established Victorian poets, such Swinburne and Tennyson, that “the music of words was a matter of harmonized vowels and consonants,” is amply underscored in this letter:
To be perfectly frank with you I am one the most notable craftsmen of my time. That will transpire presently. I am possibly the only person going who works are any but a worn out theory (principle I had better say) of versification. You see great successes in recent poetry have been made on the assumption that music of words was a matter of harmonized vowels and consonants. Both Swinburne and Tennyson arrived largely at effects in assonation. But they were the wrong track or at any rate on a short track. They went the length of it. Any one else who goes that way must go after them. And that’s where most are going. I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what may call the sound of sense. Now it possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is s posed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied:
You mean to tell me you can’t read?
I said no such thing.
Well read then.
You’re not my teacher
He says it’s too late.
Damn an Ingersoll watch anyway.
No good! Come back—come back.
Haslam go down there and make those kids
Get out of the track
Those sounds are summoned by the audile imagination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely and unmistakeably indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the posture proper to the sentence. The simple declarative sentence used in making a plain statement is one sound. But Lord love ye it mustn’t be worked to death. It is against the law of nature that whole poems should be written in it. If they are written they won’t be read. The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound-pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse. But if one is to be a poet he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre. Verse in which there is nothing but the beat of the metre furnished by the accents of the polysyllabic words we call doggerel. Verse is not that. Neither is it the sound of sense alone. It is the resultant from those two. There are only two or three metres that are worth anything. We depend for variety on the infinite play of accents in the sound of sense. The high possibility of emotional expression all lets in this mingling of sense-sound and word-accent…. Never if you can help it write down a sentence in which the voice will not know how to posture specially.
It would be a great mistake to conclude from this letter that Frost’s theory of “voice posturing,” “the sound of sense,” and the “audile imagination,” and his statement that cadences or tones are created through rhythm breaking across regular meter—that all this is merely concerned with the phonetic techniques of poetry. His theory goes to the heart of his entire aesthetic philosophy and conception of art, and is ultimately a vital part of his great skill and power both as a conversationalist and poet, and in his metaphorical habits of thought as a philosophical dualist. In all of Frost’s conversation and thought the “play” between spirit and matter was frequently bridged by his aesthetic theory, centered in the sound of sense. Frost’s letter to Bartlett on July 4, 1913, shows that when he went to England late in 1912 the connections between his theory of language in poetry, his powers of conversation, and his dualistic philosophy were firmly established. This fusion of his art and thought gave him such enormous self-confidence that his theory of language was valid that he did not hesitate to challenge the rival theory held by Robert Bridges, the English Poet Laureate. In a very revealing letter to Sidney Cox, January 19, 1914, Frost took strong exception to the view propounded by Bridges to Frost when they met in London:
He rides two hobbies tandem, his theory that syllables in English have fixed quantity that cannot be disregarded in reading verse, and his theory that with forty or fifty or sixty characters he can capture and hold for all time the sounds of speech. One theory is as bad as the other and I think owing to much the same fallacy. The living part of a poem is the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax idiom and meaning of a sentence. It is only there for those who have heard it previously in conversation. It is not for us in any Greek or Latin poem because our ears have not been filled with the tones of Greek and Roman talk. It is the most volatile and at the same time important part of poetry. With it go the accents the stresses the delays that are not the property of vowels and syllables but that are shifted at will with the sense…. When men no longer know the intonations on which we string our words they will fall back on what I may call the absolute length of our syllables which is the length we would give them in passages that meant nothing…. English poetry would then be read as Latin poetry is now read and as of course Latin poetry was never read by Romans. Bridges would like it read so now for the sake of scientific exactness. Because our poetry must sometimes be as dead as our language must Bridges would like it treated as if it were dead already.
I say you can’t read a single good sentence with the salt in it unless you have previously heard it spoken. Neither can you with the help of all the characters and diacritical marks pronounce a single word unless you have previously heard it actually pronounced. Words exist in the mouth not in books. You can’t fix them and you don’t want to fix them. You want them to adapt their sounds to persons and places and times….
Bridges wants to fix the vocables here and now because he sees signs of their deteriorating. He thinks they exist in print for people. He thinks they are of the eye. Foolish old man is all I say.
Frost’s theory of language clearly included the principle that certain spoken cadences are inherent in English words and phrases, and are practically innate to those who speak it as their mother tongue. Implicit in his theory is that particular sentence sounds and voice tones are metaphors—ways of conveying subtle shades of thinking or feeling that capture meanings. During Frost’s entire period in England, until World War One forced him to sail for home from Liverpool on February 13, 1915, he spent much of his time refining upon his theory of language, letters to friends and editors in America, and in lively conversations with his English literary friends. In his letters Thomas B. Mosher (July 17, 1913), John Bartlett (August 6 and December 1913 and especially February 22, 1914), to Sidney Cox (September 15, 1913, May 18, September 17, and December, 1914, and February 2, 1915), and to John Cournos (July 8 and July 27, 1914), Frost elaborated upon his theory, and provided specific examples of how it worked in practice through tones, stresses, moods, and what he called “gossip,” and of sounds as metaphors. It is highly significant that the most favorable English reviews of North Boston, by Lascelles Abercrombie, James Cruikshank Smith, and Edward Thomas, were written after Frost had talked with each reviewer about “the sound of sense” in his “poetry that talked.” Abercrombie’s review in the Nation (London, June 1914), was titled “A New Voice.” Two weeks before it appeared, Frost wrote his friend John W. Haines that “the discussions of my technique wouldn’t have been what it was if Abercrombie had nothing to go on but the book. He took advantage of certain conversations which I gave him the key to my method.” Frost was quick to add that “‘method’ the wrong way to call it,” because “certain principles of art” and, he might have added, his philosophical convictions regarding spirit and matter, dictated method and content in his poetry. In talks with Smith and Edward Thomas he made these reviewers well aware that the poems in his second volume deliberately performed “in a language absolutely unliterary,” and in accordance with “the voice within his mind,” within the traditional meter and original rhythms of his flexible and distinctive blank verse.
After Frost visited Smith Scotland, where he had observed with pleasure the stone walls separating meadows and farm land, he sent him some manuscript poems, and his friend responded: “Of course I recognized ‘Mending Wall’ at once as the poem which had been suggested by our walk at Kingsbarn.” When North of Boston appeared in print Smith commented on several poems in a letter to Frost in a manner that showed he was very familiar with Frost’s aesthetic theory. But perhaps nowhere is the poet as conversationalist and the conversationalist as poet more evident than in Edward Thomas’s three reviews of North of Boston, in the London Daily News, the New Weekly, and the English Review. Thomas emphasized the revolutionary nature of Frost’s colloquial dramatic poems, noted his “conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply,” and put his finger unerringly on four of the best poems in Frost’s volume: “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “The Black Cottage,” and “The Woodpile.” There can be no doubt that his excellent reviews were the direct result of his long conversations with Frost. Neither these original English literary critics nor subsequent American critics have come close to a full awareness of how completely and brilliantly Frost’s theory of language and passion for good talk were fulfilled in practice in North of Boston. In a great variety of ways all sixteen of the poems in this volume reproduce the tones of actual speech by a great range of characters or speakers. In the dramatic monologues and dialogues the “voice posturing” of his characters captures the “sound of sense” so skillfully in their tone and nuances that (as Frost aimed after 1895) he was able “to make it plain to the reader which character is saying the lines, without having to place his name before it, as is done in the drama.” In many of the poems, but most notably in “The Generations of Men,” whole pages of dialogue occur without the speaker being identified. By their speech, characters reveal their essential nature, temperament, values, and their circumstances and view of life, so that an alert reader can follow their dialogue without having to identify them by name. Many of the poems are narratives launched initially in the first person singular before evolving into monologues or dialogues. Even in passages where an authorial voice provides descriptive exposition as stage directions, and connects the spoken passages, Frost captures the appropriate tones of colloquial speech as “poetry that talked.” Frost’s literary critics have failed to note the great extent to which he actually worked into the dialogues of his fictional characters his own assumptions and principles on the art of conversation as a civilizing force. In “A Hundred Collars,’’ Lafe, the half-drunk and crude French-Canadian bill collector, and the stuffy Yankee self-conscious academic, Doctor Magoon, are forced to share a hotel room, and the almost impenetrable wall that separates them culturally is breached when Lafe says: “Now we are getting on together-talking.’’ In “Home Burial” the failure of the insensitive husband and his neurotic wife to talk about their dead child intensifies their alienation. When he laments “A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead,” his wife counters, “You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.” His vain attempts to soothe her hysterical state provoke her to say: “You—oh, you think the talk is all.” After he digs their child’s grave in their home burial plot, and enters their home, her anger is intensified by recalling his inappropriate talk:
I can repeat the very words you were saying.
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it. Talk like that at such a time.
Frost clearly believed that just as “good talk” can create civil harmony, interactions of characters with a deranged psyche or an inability to speak will create cross purposes and a fatal relationship. In “The Generations of Men,” at the Stark family’s reunion of Yankees filled with “pride of ancestry,” a young man and woman meet as “stranger cousins” and establish an intimate rapport by playfully reproducing the imagined voices of their ancestors, particularly Granny Stark. After they note that “Folks in her day were given to plain speaking,” they “consult the voices” of their ancestors, and “speak but by the voices” because “the voices give you what you wish to hear,” having the power of revelation and the gift of prophecy. The young man even takes his cue from Frost’s theory of language, and says to his cousin, “perhaps you have the art of what I mean.” Frost’s many passages on the power of conversation in the poems of North of Boston include even minute details, such as the off-stage lady in “The Black Cottage” who “liked to talk,” and the lonely speaker out walking in “Good Hours,” who has “no one at all with whom to talk.” This final poem is the fitting denouement for the many dramatic poems in North of Boston. While Frost was writing the poems for his second volume, he continued to sharpen his aesthetic and intellectual tools through talks with sophisticated literary people in London, such as Frank Flint, Ezra Pound, Robert Bridges, and T.E. Hulme. But only after he moved to rural Gloucestershire in May 1914 did his conversation take on epic proportions in both method and content. All that had been slowly gestating and developing in his thought and poetry since 1895, for lack of a fit and sympathetic audience to hear his talk, blossomed into mature fulfillment during the last eight months of his life in England. though poetry and his theory of writing remained the centerpiece in Frost’s conversations, as Edward Thomas, John Haines, and Wilfred Gibson noted, there was also a profound social and philosophical dimension to Frost’s conversation. Unlike Pound, who never really understood Frost’s poetry or aesthetics, his friends in Gloucestershire knew that he was no artless primitive plowboy who wrote simpleminded verse. Haines corded Frost as a talker “full of anecdotes,” and characterized some of traits:
He talked much and well but liked occasional long silences and especially late night enjoyed giving long, slow soliloquies on psychological and philosophical subjects…. His sense of humor pervaded all his talk and he could be sarcastic if he wanted to, though usually humour was kindly and he had a great sense of fun.
Although the austerities and the certainties created by the war with Germany and the Frost family’s strained financial resources prevented their months in the West country from being an unbroken pastoral idyll, nevertheless this brief period was one of the happiest Frost was ever to know. His two published books in England, and his knowledge that a long established American publisher had agreed to issue new editions of his books, gave Frost great satisfaction and the needed confidence that his sojourn in England had enabled him to come truly into his own as a poet. In 1926 Wilfred Gibson wrote a retrospective and nostalgic poem, “The Golden Room,” commemorating the literary gathering of Frost and his friends in July 1914, in a rose-latticed cottage called the Old Nailshop. Although lines are not great poetry, Gibson captured the image of Frost as a dominant conversationalist among his English literary friends:
Do you remember that still summer evening
When, in the cosy cream washed living
Of the Old Nailshop, we all talked and
Our neighbors from The Gallows, Catherine
And Lascelles Abercrombie; Rupert Brooke;
Eleanor and Robert Frost, living awhile
At Little Iddens, who’d brought over with
Helen and Edward Thomas? In the lamplight
We talked and laughed; but, for the most
While Robert Frost kept on and on and on,
In his slow New England fashion, for our
Holding us with shrewd turns and racy
And the rare twinkle of his grave blue eyes?
We sat there in the lamplight, while the day
Died from the rose-latticed casements, and the plovers
Called over the low meadows, till the owls
Answered them from the elms, we sat talked—
Now, a quick flash from Abercrombie, now
A murmured dry half-heard aside from Thomas;
Now, a clear laughing word from Brooke; and then
Again Frost’s rich and ripe philosophy,
That had the body and tang of good draught cider
And poured as clear a stream….
Three days after this memorable evening the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and within a month Europe was plunged into World War One, and soon Frost and his friends were scattered forever, Brooke to die of fever and Thomas from enemy gunfire in the war, and Frost and his family to return to America. Yet Frost knew upon his arrival home that his fulfillment as a poet was all but assured if he had the courage to persist in the course he had set for himself. Between 1915 and his death in 1963 Frost added many fresh dimensions to his brilliant achievements both as a poet and conversationalist, but that is another story.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
1. The following bibliographical items on Frost as a conversationalist include records of private talks with the poet, interviews, and comments made by Frost during his poetry readings: John Ciardi, “An Interview with Robert Frost,” Dialogue With an Audience (New York, 1959); and “Robert Frost: Master Conversationalist at Work,” Saturday Review of Literature (March 21, 1959); Reginald L. Cook, Robert Frost: A Living Voice (Amherst, Mass., 1974); and “Robert Frost in Context,” Frost Centennial Essays, 111 (Jackson, Miss., 1978); Rosemary Dean, “The Voices of Robert Frost,” Commonweal 69, 1959; Robert Francis, Frost: A Time to Talk: Conversations and Indiscretions (Amherst, Mass., 1972); Arthur Harris, “Conversations with Robert Frost” (Archives of Amherst College Library); Raymond Holden, “Reminiscences of Robert Frost” (Archives of the Baker Library, Dartmouth College); Clifford Lyons, “Walks and Talks with Robert Frost,’’ in Robert Frost: The Man and the Poet (Conway, Ark., 1990); Edward C. Lathem, ed., Interviews with Robert Frost (New York, 1966); Louis Merlins, Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking (Norman, Okla., 1965); Vrest Orton, Vermont Afternoons with Robert Frost (Rutland, Vt., 1971); Richard Pokier, “Robert Frost,” in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Second Series (New York, 1963); Daniel Smythe, Robert Frost Speaks (New York, 1964); C.P. Snow, Variety of Men (New York, 1966); Peter J. Stanlis, “Acceptable in Heaven’s Sight: Robert Frost at Bread Loaf, 1939-1941,” in Frost Centennial Essay, 111 (Jackson, Miss., 1978); William Sutton, ed., Newdick’s Season of Frost: An Interrupted Biography of Robert Frost (Albany, N.Y., 1976); Dorothy Tyler, “Robert Frost in Michigan,” in Frost Centennial Essays, III (Jackson, Miss., 1978); Baird Whitlock, “Conversations with Robert Frost,” Xavier Review 3 (New Orleans, 1983); Richard Wilbur, “Two Robert Frost Interviews” (Archives of Amherst College Library). For visual and auditory recordings of Frost see Voices and Visions (The New York Center for Visual History, 1988, Program 5: Robert Frost). The Annenberg/CPB Collection, distributed by Intellimation, P.O. Box 1922, Santa Barbara, Calif. 931 16. See also, The Author Speaks: Robert Frost: An Evening with Robert Frost (1956), Audio-Forum #AS20. Distributed by On the Green, Guilford, Ct., 06437. See also, Burgess Meredith, The Afterglow:A Tribute to Robert Frost (Winterset Productions). Distributed by Pyramid Film & Video, 2801 Colorado Avenue, Sarila Monica, California 90404. For Robert Frost reading twenty-three of his poems, see Decca Records, DL 9033.
2. Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost in Context,” Frost Centennial Essays, 111, 123; and Robert Frost: A Living Voice. 208. See especially Cooks chapter, “The Sayer,” 208-217.
3. Louis Mertins, Robert Frost and Talks-Walking, preface, viii. Mertins’s book is filled with concrete evidence of the range and power of Frost’s conversation.
4. Peter J. Stanlis, “Acceptable in Heaven’s Sight: Robert Frost at Bread Loaf: 1939-1941,” in Frost Centennial Essays, III, 179-311. This literary memoir covers the first three summers of talks with Frost.
5. William Carlos Williams and James Laughlin, Selected Letters, ed. by Hugh Witemeyer (New York, 1989), 40.
6. John Ciardi, Dialogue With an Audience (New York, 1959), 169.
7. See Edward C. Lathem, ed., Interviews with Robert Frost, 24. In July, 1939, at Bread Loaf, Frost stated to Peter Stanlis that next to poetry he valued and enjoyed “good talk with his friends above anything.”
8. Louis Mertins, Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking, 197-198.
9. Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years, 371.
10. See Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years, 346-347. Both as a teacher and a poet, throughout his life Frost had little use for rational critical analysis of poetry, or for scholarly attempts by academics to deal with poetry systematically through the scientific method. Poetry was for Frost a dramatic performance, both in its composition and appreciation.
11. Ibid., 360-364. In retrospect Frost remarked that revising and putting on these plays at Pinkerton Academy was his happiest experience as a teacher. When he went to the New Hampshire State Normal School at Plymouth in 1911-1912, he continued to explore the dramatic elements in poetry as good talk by reading aloud to his students Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and Shaw’s Arms and the Man. He became skillful in imitating the Irish accents in Synge’s dialogues.
12. Louis Mertins, Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking, 188.
13. Ibid., 177.
14. Lawrance Thompson, ed., Selected Letters of Robert Frost, 97. Frost’s statements were confirmed by his sister Jeannie Frost, in a letter to Wilbur E. Rowell, 8 March 1914,120.
15. Ibid., 102. Frost italicized “heard.”
16. Ibid., 110. For Frost’s elaboration on “sounds” and how they function through changes in voice tones, see 111-113.
17. Ibid., 122.
18. Ibid., 79-81. Frost italicized “specially.” For a detailed account of what Frost meant by vocal images and “talk-songs,” see Reginald L. Cook, “Tones of Voice,” in The Dimensions of Robert Frost (New York, 1958), 61-66.
19. In his English Notebooks Frost wrote: “The mind or spirit is not really active unless it is finding constantly new tones of voice.” See John Evangelist Walsh, Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, 1912-1915 (New York: 1988), 222.
20. Lawrance Thompson, ed., Selected Letters of Robert Frost, 107-108.
21. For Frost’s letter to Haines, see Lawrance Thompson, ed., Selected Letters of Robert Frost, 127. In December 1914, in a letter to Sidney Cox, Frost made clear that his “method” regarding the sound of sense and voice tones was far more than a technique in writing, because it included all that was vital in his creative imagination and knowledge of life: “We write of things we see and we write in accents we hear. Thus we gather both our material and our technique with the imagination from life; and our technique becomes as much material as material itself.” In Frost’s poems the method, structure, and material form a single unified whole through the phonetic pattern, including speech tones, and these reveal through the “play” of the imagination vital aspects of the relationship between spirit and matter.
22. John Evangelist Walsh, Into My Own, 138. For an elaborate comment on the American genesis of “Mending Wall,” see 139-142.
23. Ibid., 144-145.
24.Ibid., 191. For comments on all three of Thomas’s reviews see 189-193.
25. “What the two [Thomas and Frost] certainly did talk about, and at considerable length, was Frost’s sound-of-sense theories of versification….” John Evangelist Walsh, Into My Own, 192-193.
26. Ibid., 167. 334 Fall 1997.
The featured image is a photographed portrait of Robert Frost (1913), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.