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FROST AS A CRITICAL THEORIST
- They would not find me changed
from him they knew-
- Only more sure of all I thought
was true. (Into My
Despite Robert Frost's assertion
of this dubious virtue, his ideas about poetry did change; at
least the expression of them did. Although the central idea of
the importance of the speaking voice remained with him, the language
in which he talked about his poetry changed over the years from
the technical ("tones," "voice-posture," "metrics")
to the moral and psychological ("belief," "commitment,"
"courage," "prowess") and to the linguistic
("meaning," "metaphor," "naming").
His early critical ideas were wholly those of the craftsman; later
ideas were those of the philosopher. A quality of abstraction
creeps in - the result not simply of age, or fame, or rationalization,
but of a broader concern for the nature and function of poetry.
- The heritage of poetic form against
which Frost formulated his earliest ideas was the musical assonance
of most nineteenth-century poetry. Poetry and music were seen
as twin offspring of the same Victorian muse. Frost set out to
wrench them apart. In a letter to John Bartlett in 1913 he explained:
You see the great successes in recent
poetry have been made on the assumption that the music of words
was a matter of harmonised vowels and consonants. Both Swinburne
and Tennyson arrived largely at effects in assonation. But they
were on the wrong track or at any rate on a short track. They
went the length of it. Anyone else who goes that way must go
after them. And that's where most are going.
- Frost, seeking a road less traveled
by, began with a certainty that poetry was, in its essence, different
from music. A light exchange with Louis Untermeyer indicates
his irritation at any blurring of these two separate art forms.
"Tell me, Louis," he wrote in 1915, "while it
is uppermost in my mind what, when you are doing the high critical,
do you mean by 'overtones' in poetry." At Untermeyer's presumably
reassuring reply that it meant nothing, Frost's relief is obvious:
"It's all right then. ...It's just one of those bad analogies
that obliterates the distinction between poetry and music."
This suspiciousness toward musicality, then, was a basic starting
premise - though Frost was not as alone in holding it as he imagined.
Yeats, though his early poetry would appear to deny it, was asserting
the same distinction (2) and
advising John Synge to go to the west of Ireland and listen to
people talk. The anthology Georgian Poetry: 1911-1912
declared its separation from fin-de-siecle musicality and a return
to natural speech rhythms. Yet Frost's position as an American
poet gave him a somewhat different perspective. American poetry
in the nineteenth century had polarized itself more obviously
than English poetry. One of the poles had been Edgar Allan Poe,
who in "The Rationale of Verse" claimed that verse
"cannot be better designated than an inferior or less capable
and whose own poetry surrendered all other poetic effects to
the lulling hypnosis of sound. This tradition continued through
much minor poetry to later poets like Sidney Lanier and Vachel
Lindsay, both of whom Frost rejected vigorously. When "My
Butterfly" was first published in The Independent
in 1894, the well-meaning editor sent Frost a copy of Lanier's
verse so that he could study felicity of meter. Frost's refusal
to do so ("No writer has ever been corrected into importance")
was a declaration that his poetic aims were different. And all
his life he scoffed at the orchestrations and stage directions
of Vachel Lindsay: " 'Say this in a golden tone,' he says.
You ought not to have to say that in the margin. ...That ought
to be in the meaning." One of his few parodies has Lindsay
as its target.
Running a strong countermovement to this poetry-as-music tradition
in nineteenth-century America is a colloquial tradition, to which
in fact the best poets belonged: Emerson, with his imperfect
rhymes and meters, calling for "not metres, but a metre-making
argument," Whitman, with his use of slang and free rhythm,
Emily Dickinson whose homely diction and frequent metrical irregularity
give the impression of a speaking voice, and Edwin Arlington
Robinson whose "talking tones" Frost so much admired.
This was the tradition, virtually closed to the Georgians, that
Frost was heir to. As he dogmatically summed it up in a lecture
years later: "No music is the same as poetry, any more than
architecture and poetry is [sic] the same." (4)
Although poetry for Frost was not "an inferior and less
capable music," yet for him its essence lay, constructively
and meaningfully, in sound. He was no Imagist. For him sound
was the great artistic catalyst, and its function was mysteriously
epistemological. As early as 1894 he made this extraordinary
statement in a letter: "Sound is an element of poetry, one
but for which the imagination would become reason." (5) Thus, whereas Wordsworth, for example,
would talk of the imagination in terms of encounters, direct
or remembered, with the physical world, and Emerson in terms
of neo-Platonic glimpses of reality, Frost talks of it in terms
of prosody, of what he never ceased to regard as the central
feature of poetry. The physical perception dictates the emotional
- There are only three things, after
all, that a poem must reach: the eye, the ear, and what we may
call the heart or the mind. It is the most important of all to
reach the heart of the reader. And the surest way to reach the
heart is through the ear. The visual images thrown up by a poem
are important, but it is more important still to choose and arrange
words in a sequence so as virtually to control the intonations
and pauses of the reader's voice. By the arrangement and choice
of words on the part of the poet, the effects of humor, pathos,
hysteria, anger, and in fact, all effects, can be indicated or
- If this initially appears close
to Poe, the distinction lies in Frost's characterization of sound
as being "the intonations and pauses of the reader's voice."
Not the rhythmic, singing, voice, but the talking voice. Most
of Frost's early critical ideas center on this concept.
- In later years, he was fond of
recalling how this theory crystallized for him. A clergyman friend,
commenting on Frost's first poem in The Independent, tried
to give him some advice about metrics,as the poem sounded too
much like talking. Suddenly Frost knew precisely what he was
after: the sound of talk. But his fascination with this was always
more prosodic than picturesque or cultural. He was not interested
in idioms and intonations for their quaintness, or their national
or local flavor. Although he admired Synge, he himself would
never, as he told Sidney Cox, have listened to conversations
through a chink in the ceiling and written down notes, (7) and this difference in literary approach
is reflected in the difference in artistic effects. The rich
language of Synge's plays is a distillation of images
and rhythms heard, in fact a highly literary language - "as
fully flavoured as a nut or an apple." (8)
It is Frost's undoctored language that actually gives us the
sense of eavesdropping. He sought to extend the boundaries of
literature into the real vernacular, whose meaning was as varied
as the tones of voice that could be used to express it:
- There are two kinds of language:
the spoken language and the written language - our every day
speech which we call the vernacular; and a more literary, sophisticated,
artificial, elegant language that belongs to books. We often
hear it said that a man talks like a book in this second way.
We object to anybody's talking in this literary, artificial English;
we don't object to anybody's writing in it; we rather expect
people to write in a literary, somewhat artificial style. I,
myself, could get along very well without this bookish language
- A proper understanding of intonation,
the sense of the speaking voice, opened up to Frost endless possibilities
for poetic effects. At the furthest extreme, intonation alone
could carry meaning, quite divorced from particular words. Frost
was fond of citing the example of listening to the rise and fall
of voices behind closed doors or just out of earshot, where individual
words could not be discerned, yet meaning, emotion, and dramatic
interaction could all be intuited. Similarly, he had a Celtic
delight in listening to the limited vocabulary of hearty curses
and the infinite variety of meanings they could convey, depending
solely "on the tones of saying it and the situations."
But intonations conveyed most when they occurred most naturally,
as interdependent with the actual words, when the voice itself
could add connotative to denotative meaning.
This interdependence Frost called "sound-posturing":
the tone of voice extended, even perhaps created, the "dictionary"
meaning of a word or phrase. At the same time, one could only
know how to say a particular sentence by an understanding of
the total meaning, or context. Language is a living, dramatic
thing and communication depends largely on the performer:
- I say you cant 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 dont want to fix them.
You want them to adapt their sounds to persons and places and
times. You want them to change and be different. (Letter from Frost to Sidney Cox
January 19, 1914, Beaconsfield)
- Not every yawp, then, had to be
barbaric. Frost's own favorite example was the almost endless
variety of meaning possible in the simple word "Oh":
- "Take, for instance, the expression
'oh.' The American poets use it in practically one tone, that
of grandeur: 'Oh Soul!' 'Oh Hills! ' - 'Oh Anything! ' That's
the way they go. But think of what 'oh' is really capable: the
'oh' of scorn, the 'oh' of amusement, the 'oh' of surprise, the
'oh' of doubt - and there are many more." (9)
- The particular tone chosen - whether
of scorn, or amusement, or surprise, or doubt - will be dictated
by the dramatic situation of the speaker. This is what Frost
worked hard to establish through context in his own poetry. He
once told Sidney Cox that he added the moral at the end of "The
Runaway" just for the pleasure of the aggrieved tone of
voice, (10) and in a letter to John Cournos it is
in the achievement of this "hearing imagination" that
he takes most pride:
- I also think well of those four
"don'ts" in Home Burial. They would be good in prose
and they gain something from the way they are placed in the verse.
Then there is the threatening
"If-you-do!" (Last of Home Burial) It is that particular
kind of imagination that I cultivate rather than the kind that
merely sees things, the hearing imagination rather than the seeing
imagination though I should not want to be without the latter
I am not bothered by the question whether anyone will be able
to hear or say those three words ("If-you-do!") as
I mean them to be said or heard. I should say that they were
sufficiently self expressive. Some doubt that such tones can
long survive on paper. They'll probably last as long as the finer
meanings of words. (11)
- After Frost had thus broadened
the poetic possibilities of individual words by such concentration
on the relation of sound to meaning, it was but a small step
to extend the flexibility of the sentence, to wage war on the
traditional concept of the sentence as "a grammatical cluster
of words," and to establish instead "the distinction
between the grammatical sentence and the vital sentence."
Again, it was a matter of intonation, of voice posture: "There's
something in the living sentence (in the shape of it) that is
more important than any phrasing or chosen word." (12)
The best analysis of this idea occurs in the letters to John
Bartlett and Sidney Cox. What is curious, however, in view of
Frost's usual insistence on the possibilities, rather than the
limitations, of intonational effect is his frequent claim that
there are only a certain fixed number of sentence-sounds in man's
- Remember, a certain fixed number
of sentences (sentence sounds) belong to the human throat just
as a certain fixed number of vocal runs belong to the throat
of a given kind of bird. These are fixed I say. Imagination can
not create them. It can only call them up! (13)
- The physical possibilities for
expression, which so extend the meanings of words and sentences,
in the end, it would seem, also mark their limitations. As Frost
wrote to John Freeman: "The brute tones of our human throat
[ , ] that may once have been all our meaning. I suppose there
is one for every feeling we shall ever feel, yes and for every
thought we shall ever think. Such is the limitation of our thought."
Art consists not in creating new variations (for that would place
the artist outside nature) but in listening for tones that have
not been stereotyped by literary expression, in collecting and
arranging. Appreciation rests in recognition, not discovery.
The very images of orchestration, of stage direction, with which
Frost talks of gathering and selecting his sentence-arrangements
indicate how close his conception of poetry is to drama. He wrote
only three complete plays (if one includes the two masques),
yet he conducted a lifelong flirtation with the stage. During
his first teaching appointment at Pinkerton Academy, he produced
five plays, ranging from The Rivals to Cathleen ni
Houlihan; throughout his life, he seized any opportunity
he could to attend plays; certain of his dramatic eclogues were
formally dramatized and acted.(14) His
statements on writing continually affirm this quality: "Everything
written is as good as it is dramatic. It need not declare itself
in form, but it is drama or nothing." (15) He has expressed his indebtedness to Turgenev.
Indeed, his realization of the innate dramatic possibilities
of stasis ("It is a poem just to mention driving into a
strange barn to bide the passing of a thunder storm" 16) has much in common with Chekov or Maeterlinck;
"An Old Man's Winter Night" is just such a "play."
Like these dramatists, he was acutely aware not only of the dramatic
force of intonations, but also of pauses and silences. Hence
the importance of the pauses in "If - you - do!" And
hence the superb control of inarticulateness, of silences and
breakings-off, in "A Servant to Servants." At a time
when Ibsen was revolutionizing the nineteenth-century drama with
thesis-plays ("writing from a formula," Frost told
Sidney Cox), and later, when Shaw's argumentative prefaces covered
more space than his actual plays, Frost's notion of the real
source of dramatic interest never wavered. Language, properly
conveyed, contained its own conflicts. He went back to Shakespeare
to justify his "sound of sense." Real drama did not
come from imposed theses, or extravagant stage directions, not
even from body movement. His appreciation of a play by Edwin
Arlington Robinson is typical: "The speaking tones are all
there on the printed page, nothing is left for the actor but
to recognize and give them. And the action is in the speech where
it should be, and not along beside it in antics for the body
to perform." This is the concept of "language as gesture"
indeed. In fact, quite early Frost defined literature to Louis
Untermeyer as "words that have become deeds." (17)
Because Frost's sense of drama, as of poetry, was so tied to
this "language such as men do use," his themes belong
strictly to the here and now. If Poe in Politian shifted
the Kentucky Beauchamp murder case to sixteenth-century Rome,
the strange transmigration was surely due as much to the lack
of an adequate language to cope with the local and present as
it was to his natural penchant for the exotic. Frost's English
friend Lascelles Abercrombie, publishing the first act of his
play The Sale of St. Thomas in 1911, was careful to set
it at a distance - India, at the time of Christ; and again one
suspects on his part a failure of language. Frost's "dramas,"
on the other hand, even when they are about witches, are about
witches actually known in the present, like the witch of Coos.
Similarly, part of what makes A Masque of Reason such
a stylistic tour de force is that the philosophical dilemma is
couched in the language of colloquial American rationalism. In
a revealing letter to John Erskine, Frost states clearly his
attitude toward arbitrary objectification. Commenting on a poem
by Erskine, he concludes:
- But why to objectify the idea and
put it far enough away from yourself must you put it away off
in antiquity and say it in heroes and gods. Why must you every
time, I mean. All right for this poem; but why not next time
say it in modern people. It is like diffidence, shyness, this
remoteness in time and space. Get over it and you can break in
on the age with your strength and insight.
- By the time he went to England
in 1912, Frost's basic ideas about poetry were already established.
The seriousness and self-consciousness with which he formulated
them are affirmed not only in his letters at this time but also
by his eagerness to discuss his ideas among the friends he found
in the new literary world that was opening up to him. The world
of literary camaraderie and exchange of ideas had been denied
him in the years at Derry; he now, though not without some reservations
in regard to certain of his fellow poets, took advantage of his
new opportunities. In an unpublished postcard to F. S. Flint,
Frost solicits the advice of Flint and T. E. Hulme:
- Do you suppose you could get Hulme
to listen with you some night to my theory of what would be pure
form in poetry? I don't want to talk to a salon, but to a couple
of clear-heads who will listen and give my idea its due. I will
be greatly helped in what is before me by a little honest criticism.
You would advise as metrical expert and he as philosopher. Do
I ask too much. R. Frost
- Be sure not to force Hulme. I wouldn't
put him to sleep for the world. (18)
- This meeting took place, and Frost
was obviously grateful for the chance to articulate his critical
theories. He referred to the meeting in a letter written the
- I don't know but that I have delivered
the best of what I had to say on the sound of sense. What more
there may be I will be on hand to talk over with you and Hulme
at five, Tuesday. My ideas got just the rub they needed last
- The same self-consciousness underlies
the tone of conviction with which Frost wrote to Sidney Cox in
1914 about the Poet Laureate. Bridges' syllabic theories, according
to Frost, were not only unsuited to a naturally accentual language
like English, but they closed the door to all the dramatic possibilities
of intonation, everything that makes a poem "living"
as distinct from the "dead" poetry of extinct languages
that are revived only in formalized scansion:
- 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. It goes and the language becomes a
dead language, the poetry dead poetry.
- It was surely of this intonation
that Frost was thinking when he later described poetry as "that
which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation."
Central as this concept of "voice-posture" or "sound
of sense" was to Frost's critical thought, however, he was
not naive enough to think that the capturing of tones of voice
was anything more than the "raw material" of poetry.
He was no simple tape recorder. And he was constantly at pains
to dissociate himself from free-versers like Carl Sandburg. If
a proper ear for intonation increased one's awareness of the
range of natural rhythm and accent in English, this was just
the beginning: " 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 skilfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity
of accent across the regular beat of the metre."
Talking of capturing the sentence tones of everyday talk, he
- No one makes them or adds to them.
They are always there - living in the cave of the mouth. They
are real cave things: they were before words were. And they are
as definitely things as any image of sight. The most creative
imagination is only their summoner. But summoning them is not
all. They are only lovely when thrown and drawn and displayed
across spaces of the footed line. (19)
- The rather self-conscious mixture
here of the image of the magician with that of the craftsman
suggests the duality behind poetic creation.
There has always been a particularly close relation between poetic
meter and poetic meaning. (20) The
very earliest poets knew that the regular stress of meter gives
poetry a definite emotional, even a physical appeal. All of us,
Frost often said, grew up on Mother Goose; and nursery rhymes
have had their perennial appeal simply through our instinctual
reaction to a regular beat. Yet the best poets have also known
that too much regularity is soporific, or can lead to doggerel;
and their real craftsmanship has lain in constructing irregularities
within some chosen framework. Rhythm and meter had to be wary
bedfellows. Frost's theory carries this idea even further. Since
he had enlarged the concept of natural speaking rhythms by his
capturing of intonations, there is, accordingly, a greater sense
of conflict in the way meter tries to harness these rhythms.
Note the imagery of strain that is always present when Frost
talks of poetic creation: "I am never more pleased than
when I can get these into strained relation. I like to drag and
break the intonation across the meter as waves first comb and
then break stumbling on the shingle." (21) Forty years later, this sense of strain
was still obviously the most conscious part of Frost's craftsmanship:
"They use the word 'rhythm' about a lot of free verse; and
gee, what's the good of the rhythm unless it is on something
that trips it - that it ruffles? You know, it's got to ruffle
For the poet who wrote "West-Running Brook," this basic
conflict in the act of creation, this sense of art won only through
strain, was symptomatic of profounder conflicts. Frost's kind
of poetry mirrored basic psychological oppositions; and his art,
in this sense, was truly mimetic. In a short casual letter he
mentioned the idea in passing: "Free rhythms are as disorderly
as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their
rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature."
- To Frost, form is as necessary
to poetry as the discipline of holding opposites in flux is necessary
to the emotional life; and for the same reasons. Hence his sweeping
statements on the human relevance of poetry. Insanity in his
own family gave him enough evidence to fear the lack of such
inner structure. Not surprisingly, then, he talks of form in
two ways. When he hurls abuse at the "free-versters,"
"form" has a purely technical meaning; it embraces
the traditional poetic tools of selectivity, choice of words,
meter , and stanzaic patterning. His favorite comparison here
was that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the
net down - no fun, no challenge, no effect." There is no
greater fallacy going," he wrote to Sidney Cox, "than
that art is expression - an undertaking to tell all to the last
scrapings of the brain pan. ...My object is true form. ..form
true to any chance bit of true life." (23) And he lightheartedly asserts the importance
of "measure" in the poem "The Aim Was Song."
But even quite early in his theorizing, form also had a broader,
more philosophical meaning; it is this meaning, associated with
concepts like "freedom," and "belief," and
"performance," that came to predominate in Frost's
later attitudes. "Form" was a way of encompassing and
giving coherence to the confusion and chaos of life itself; this
imposed discipline then liberated one to a truer "freedom"
- "the almost incredible freedom of the soul enslaved to
the hard facts of experience," (24) as
he expressed it to Edward Garnett in 1915 while giving his definition
of "realist." Frost's idea of form was never dilettantish
nor purely theoretical. He welcomed the confusions and crudities
of experience precisely because of this opportunity for conflict;
in an almost existential sense, one defined oneself through the
tussle. "I thank the Lord for crudity," he wrote, "which
is rawness, which is raw material, which is the part of life
not yet worked up into form, or at least not worked all the way
up." (25) He wanted the world no different from
what it was: "I wouldn't give a cent to see the world ...made
better. ...I have no quarrel with the material." (26) As the surprisingly orthodox theology
of A Masque of Reason affirms:
- Except as a hard place to save
his soul in,
- A trial ground where he can try
- And find out whether he is any
It would be meaningless. It might as well
- Be Heaven at once and have it over
- Frost was thus a realist in the
most experiential sense, and form was sheer tough-mindedness.
He shrewdly saw through the phony, yet immensely popular, "realism"
of Edgar Lee Masters, for example, claiming that Masters was
"too romantic for my taste, and by romantic I'm afraid I
mean among other things false-realistic." (28)
- His own resolution of the confrontation
with the "crudity" of experience was usually the more
controlled one of ironic understatement.
But if "form" thus acts as a catalyst in this philosophical
resolution of "crudity," it is also a paradigm of such
resolution. In the terminology of A Masque of Reason,
art can capture the "meaning" only if it echoes the
sense of "trial"; the very form of a poem must
emerge from a confrontation with the "threat" of formlessness.
Thus, as Frost wrote to Sidney Cox as early as 1914: "[O]ur
technique becomes as much material as material itself."
In the series of teasing questions that he puts to Lewis Chase,
he asks twice if his poems produce a feeling of threat; and in
a letter to Amy Bonner written many years later he relates form
directly to both life and art, and asserts the necessity of threat
- [T]here are no two things as important
to us in life and art as being threatened and being saved. What
are ideals of form for if we arent going to be made to fear for
them? All our ingenuity is lavished on getting into danger legitimately
so that we may be genuinely rescued.
- Twelve years earlier, Frost had
expressed in a memorable image an idea similar to this precarious,
nonlinear "progress" through "being threatened
and being saved":
- The most exciting movement in nature
is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the
opening and shutting of the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind.
We throw our arms wide with a gesture of religion to the universe;
we close them around a person. We explore and adventure for a
while and then we draw in to consolidate our gains. The breathless
swing is between subject matter and form.
- One feature of form that bridges
the technical and philosophical meanings is style, and Frost,
in a letter to Untermeyer , gives a thoughtful analysis of this,
which he later expanded in his Preface to King Jasper.
Style, he notes, is "that which indicates how the
writer takes himself and what he is saying. ...It is the mind
skating circles round itself as it moves forward." It thus
establishes the necessary objectivity, the judgment of the intellect
on the emotional involvement of artistic creation. Most difficult,
because most intangible, of all qualities for the artist to develop,
it is nevertheless the ultimate pointer to his literary tact
and literary faith. The easiest escape is to be completely abstract,
to have no style at all. Frost thus criticizes one of Amy Lowell's
poems: "How completely outside of herself she gets and how
completely outside of everybody else she keeps. She executes
a frightfulness." (29) Elinor
Wylie, on the other hand, at least establishes an attitude to
her subject in a kind of irony, and the presence of "style"
wins his approval:
- She was self-conscious artist enough
to see her appointed task. It was to make a false heart ring
false. Art forbade that a false heart should ring true. That
would have been false art. The rules of the game permitted her,
required her, to slip from one pose to its opposite even in the
same poem when of moderate length. So long as she kept her high
poetic strain, so long as the work was all crystals, sugar, glass,
semi-precious and precious, the falser she was the truer she
rang. The ultimate test is how a writer takes himself as betrayed
in tone, word-font, and collateral advertising. I find the Wylie's
way of taking herself, her airs about herself, not very detestable.(30)
- Irony, he realizes, is simply "self-defence,"
just as humor is. And Frost should know. In the same letter to
Untermeyer on style, he goes on: "I own any form of humor
shows fear and inferiority. Irony is simply a kind of guardedness.
...Humor is the most engaging cowardice. With it myself I have
been able to hold some of my enemy in play far out of gunshot."
The best writers, those who dare, take their beliefs seriously:
"Belief is better than anything else, and it is best when
rapt, above paying its respects to anybody's doubt whatsoever."
For Frost, the best example of such commitment was Emerson.
Belief, then. But this should not be confused with beliefs, particularly
the social and political credos that rang through the 1920's,
just as griefs should not be confused with grievances. For belief
meant acceptance of the age for the possibilities it offered,
a sense of the eternal verities. "We have no way of knowing
that this age is one of the worst in the world's history,"
he wrote to The Amherst Student in 1935. ". ..It
is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before
the worst forces ever mobilized by God." Life, like poetry,
finds not only its security but also its triumph in form. He
concludes the same letter with Faulknerian tolling: "The
background is hugeness and confusion shading away from where
we stand into black and utter chaos; and against the background
any small man-made figure of order and concentration."
Frost's definitions of poetry in the middle years of his career
have thus left behind the technical questions of intonations
and rhythms and meters, and concern themselves instead with this
sense of metaphysical struggle. "Every poem," he wrote
in 1946, "is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure
of the will braving alien entanglements." In a jocular letter
to Leonidas Payne as early as 1927, he made a revealing metaphor
out of a childhood incident:
- My poems. ..are all set to trip
the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy
I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such
like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward
over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in
- the dark.(31)
- And perhaps his most sustained
and famous metaphor for poetry occurs in "The Figure a Poem
Makes," the preface he wrote to his collected poems in 1939:
- It begins in delight and ends in
wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really
hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one
place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes
direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of
lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life - not necessarily
a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on,
but in a momentary stay against confusion.
It would be foolish to try to establish a strict chronological
scheme in relation to Frost's critical theories. Sheer technique
continued to interest him throughout his life, and there are
slight hints of a more philosophical approach even in his earliest
statements. But there is, from about 1925 on, a definite shift
in emphasis, a change in expression and therefore in concept.
The correspondence of poetry and life, of the technical and metaphysical
meanings of form, occupied him increasingly. The position given
to literature in the Platonic ladder of Frost's famous "four
beliefs" is significant: self-belief, the belief of love,
literary belief, and belief in God. (32) Not
only is literature seen quite specifically here as a matter of
"belief," but the nature of that belief is defined
by what circumscribes it; it takes off from the human and points
to the infinite; it is indeed "the will braving alien entanglements."
The Biblical cadences into which Frost's prose often falls are
not altogether fortuitous; there was a little of the prophet
in Frost's own "style." If "form" liberated
one to "freedom," freedom was "nothing but departure,"
and the creative possibilities were staggering. What mattered,
as he came more and more to extract himself from his material,
was "performance," the self-definition achieved by
means of technical mastery.
Certainly, when Frost discussed the nature of poetic creation,
he never belittled the initial inspiration-the "mood"
or "moment" as he often called it. A "performance"
can hardly take place in a vacuum; it must have material to shape.
He never really analyzed the "moment," simply accepting
it like a moment of grace or intuition. In a much-quoted extract
from a letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost enlarges the idea:
- A poem is never a put-up job so
to speak. It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong,
a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin
with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness. It
finds its thought and succeeds, or doesn't find it and comes
to nothing. It finds its thought or makes its thought. I suppose
it finds it lying around with others not so much to its purpose
in a more or less full mind. That's why it oftener comes to nothing
in youth before experience has filled the mind with thoughts.
It may be a big big emotion then and yet finds nothing it can
embody in. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.
Let's say again: A poem particularly must not begin with thought
- Actually this was simplifying his
practice a little. In a subtle analysis of Frost's poetic impulse,
Lawrance Thompson sees it more accurately as a two-way operation:
sometimes Frost did work from an initial emotion through to thought
by way of metaphor (as in "Stopping by Woods"), but
at other times (as in "For Once, Then, Something")
he starts with a sudden mental perception and, working it out
through analogy, reaches an emotional afterglow. (34) But the emphasis, even in that letter
to Untermeyer, is on the working out. The "performance"
was an act of clarification, and one of its greatest dangers
was "facility," a slickness that denied the difficulty
of the performance. At the same time, for Frost a poem could
not be "worried into existence." Some revisions were
always possible and usually necessary, but if a poem did not
find its essential form at the beginning, he usually set it aside.
There was only one right way of saying a thing:
- I have never been good at revising.
I always thought I made things worse by recasting and retouching.
I never knew what was meant by choice of words. It was one word
or none. When I saw more than one possible way of saying a thing
I knew I was fumbling and turned from writing. If I ever fussed
a poem into shape I hated and distrusted it afterward. The great
and pleasant memories are of poems that were single strokes (
one stroke to the poem) carried through. I won't say I haven't
learned with the years something of the tinker's art. I'm surprised
to find sometimes how I have just missed the word. It wasn't
that I was groping for my meaning. I had that clear enough and
I had thought I had said the word for it. But I hadn't said within
a row of apple trees of it. (35)
- It is Frost's interest in the nature
of the clarification-through-performance that marks a third stage
in his critical thinking. From his early preoccupation with the
technical aspects of poetry, and from his later more philosophical
interest in the relation of poetry to life, Frost became increasingly
fascinated by such questions as the meaning of meaning, the nature
of metaphor and of originality, the relation of poet to reader
- the broad epistemological questions that put him very much
in the stream of modern linguistic philosophy. Again, the time
lines are, to say the least, blurred. These were not consecutive
"developments" in a rising scale of critical value;
they are simply the shiftings of interest that one might expect
in a long career. Nor is this last phase even as clearly defined
as the other two; it is stated or implied, with varying degrees
of formality, over many years.
Frost was always concerned with the nature of poetic communication;
he wanted to "get the poems over" to a general public,
having no desire to be, as he considered Pound was, "caviare
to the crowd." In discussing this communication, he uses
the same words - "remembering," "recognition"
- to indicate the poem's effect on both the poet and the reader.
For the poet, the poem takes off from the realization of "delight,"
like the sudden apprehension of love:
- No tears in the writer, no tears
in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the
reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering
something I didn't know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation,
as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground.
There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows.
The Figure a Poem
- For the reader the effect must
be the same: "The artist's object is to tell people what
they haven't as yet realized they were about to say themselves."
(36) Or, as Frost expressed it to John Bartlett
as early as 1914:
- A word about recognition: In literature
it is our business to give people the thing that will make them
say, "Oh yes I know what you mean." It is never to
tell them something they dont know, but something they know and
hadnt thought of saying. It must be something they recognize.
Letter to John Barlett
- A poem will achieve this only if
it has been a genuine act of clarification for the poet - not
a "formula" poem that works up to a previously selected
felicitous last line - and if the clarification takes place within
the framework of the poem itself. Thus Frost was impatient with
transient poetic vogues, originality for the sake of originality,
"new ways to be new." The problem was the age-old one
of understanding, beyond the limited clarification of debate.
"I have wanted to find ways to transcend the strife-method,"
he wrote to Sidney Cox. "I have found some....It is not
so much anti-conflict as it is something beyond conflict....I'll
bet I could tell of spiritual realizations that for the moment
at least would over-awe the contentious. ...Every poem is one."
(37) What was essential for him was that the
"act of clarification" remain fluid. It is possible
to think out a perception totally before writing, in which case
the poem has been thought out of existence. Or the technique
of a poem can become too insistent and take over the initial
"recognition": "What counts is the amount of the
original intention that isnt turned back in execution."
(38) In a good poem the poet discovers his
world as he creates it in language; he is the "happy discoverer
of his ends."
Thus the language itself has to be a discovery. Cliches and jaded
diction carry no insight because they freeze meaning, allowing
the mind no new "feats of association." In a perceptive
statement on Spoon River Anthology, Frost touches
on the relation of diction to originality:
- But I can't say for certain that
I don't like Spoon River. I believe I do like it in a way. ...I
could wish it weren't so nearly the ordinary thing in its attitude
toward respectability. How shall we treat respectability? That
is not for me to say: I am not treating it. All I know with any
conviction is that an idea has to be a little new to be at all
true and if you say a thing three times it ceases to be so. (39)
- Frost himself sought "the
unmade words to work with, not the familiar made ones that everybody
exclaims Poetry! at." Letter
to Cox On March 13, 1918, he
gave a talk to a class of boys at the Browne and Nichols School
that he entitled "The Unmade Word, or Fetching and Far-fetching";
in it he urged that words should be "fetched" from
one association and moved to another place, given another extension
of meaning, in order to keep a language fresh. This fear of cliches
in itself is not unusual; most good poets have been concerned
with poetry as "the renewal of words." But Frost explores
the nature of language, and the relation of naming to meaning,
much more abstractly in the poem "Maple."
A girl called Maple is plagued from her school days by the difference
her name has imposed on her. Other names - like the Mabel she
is taken for - mean nothing, are simply denotative. Hers had
"too much meaning" and her search for whatever the
meaning was becomes a search for an identity, her self-seeking:
- Her problem was to find out what
In dress or manner of the girl who bore it.
- The word thus exerts a deterministic,
shaping force on her experience. She looks for an unequivocal
explanation - but the page in the Bible marked by a maple leaf
tells her nothing, and her father's anecdote about her naming
is ambiguous, belonging only to his experience. So absolute truth
is ruled out, and human truth is proved relative. Eventually,
through the intuition of a fresh perception rather than through
a passive acceptance of a given correspondence, a man understands
"Do you know you remind me of a tree -
A maple tree? "
"Because my name is Maple? "
"Isn't it Mabel? I thought it was Mabel."
"No doubt you've heard the office call me Mabel.
I have to let them call me what they like."
They were both stirred that he should have divined
Without the name her personal mystery.
It made it seem as if there must be something
She must have missed herself .
- Together they make one final trip
to her birth-place to see if there, at the place of origin, they
can locate the experience that gave rise to the name. Seemingly
at a dead-end,
- They clung to what one had seen
in the other
- By inspiration. It proved there
- Yet even then, faced with simply
the existence of the name, lacking the history that went
into the creating of it, they can still choose, from the immediacy
of their own experiences, the connotations that will provide
their own "meaning." So "they kept their thought
away from when the maples/ Stood uniform in buckets," and
associated her instead with "the tree the autumn fire ran
through/ And swept of leathern leaves." Suddenly one final
revelation is offered to them in a striking image of visual parallel:
- Once they came on a maple in a
- Standing alone with smooth arms
- And every leaf of foliage she'd
Laid scarlet and pale pink about her feet.
- But "discovery" is prevented
by their lack of "faith":
- They hovered for a moment near
- Figurative enough to see the symbol,
But lacking faith in anything to mean
The same at different times to different people.
- Perhaps a filial diffidence partly
- From thinking it could be a thing
- Caught thus in the self-imposed
trap of relative thinking, they are finally blinded to further
insights by their deliberate halting of the active quest:
- "We would not see the secret
if we could now:
- We are not looking for it any more."
- It is a curious poem. It borders
on the tall tale, yet the tone is more perplexed than facetious,
and the very "tallness" of the narrative only highlights
the deeper "meanings" of the poem in which, as in "Birches,"
"Truth...with all her matter of fact" is set beside
Truth as interpretation, as discovery, as experience, as metaphor.
The poem thus explores some profound and complex ideas about
the nature of knowledge, language, and personality. Who gave
meaning to the name? The previous generation ("Something
between your father and your mother/ Not meant for us at all")
? The girl's own experience? The "inspiration" of her
husband, creating fresh metaphoric relevance? Or the gratuitous
revelation of the tree at the end, offering, in true Emersonian
fashion, new correspondences? How does meaning shape experience?
Or experience create meaning? If Frost here seems in the realm
- I. A. Richards and Wittgenstein,
this does not necessarily mean that he had read either of them.
His puzzling about the nature of language, and the relation of
"Nature" to language, goes back rather to Emerson,
but the nature of his preoccupations here place him in the same
arena as some of the more sophisticated critical theorists of
the twentieth century.
Central to Frost's thinking about the meaning of meaning are
his ideas on metaphor. One of the most striking features of his
prose from the very beginning is that nearly all his attempts
at explanation or definition lead him into metaphor:
- I like to drag and break the intonation
across the meter as waves first comb and then break stumbling
on the shingle.
[A poem] begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is
the same as for love.
[Style] is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves
- In the Paris Review interview he
told Richard Poirier: "Every thought is a feat of association."
(40) Thus all thinking is metaphoric, and Frost
gives the broadest epistemological relevance to metaphor in "Education
by Poetry." It is not a simple "pairing-off" correspondence,
which would be static; he is careful not to use the word "simile"
except facetiously, as in "The Door in the Dark."
- In going from room to room in the
- I reached out blindly to save my
- But neglected, however lightly,
- My fingers and close my arms in
- A slim door got in past my guard,
And hit me a blow in the head so hard
- I had my native simile jarred.
So people and things don't pair anymore
- With what they used to pair with
- His "native simile,"
adept at pairing "people and things," did not open
the door, only ran into it "in the dark." Metaphors
are creative, door-opening, expansive, and the main value of
teaching poetry is that it teaches awareness of metaphor. ("Education
by poetry is education by metaphor .") It provides discipline
and direction and understanding in its function as the "prism
of the intellect" which takes "enthusiasm," the
raw emotional response to experience, and spreads it "on
the screen in a color, all the way from hyperbole at one end
- or overstatement, at one end - to understatement at the other
end." (41) It is thus a way of sorting out, of discriminating,
meaning from the language that contains it. It is also a warning,
as was "Maple," against the heresy of thinking that
meaning is absolute:
- Once on a time all the Greeks were
busy telling each other what the All was - or was like unto.
All was three elements, air, earth, and water (we once thought
it was ninety elements; now we think it is only one). All was
substance, said another. All was change, said a third. But best
and most fruitful was Pythagoras' comparison of the universe
with number. Number of what? Number of feet, pounds, and seconds
was the answer, and we had science and all that has followed
in science. The metaphor has held and held, breaking down only
when it came to the spiritual and psychological or the out of
the way places of the physical. (42)
- This proper relation to meaning
that one establishes through metaphor carries over into all aspects
of living - into historical perspectives and personal values.
A proper understanding of figurative values liberates one to
the possibilities of Belief - or all four beliefs. Yet it finally
has the limitation of the finite mind:
- Greatest of all attempts to say
one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to
say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter,
to make the final unity. That is the greatest attempt that ever
failed. We stop just short there. But it is the height of poetry,
the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking,
that attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms
of matter. It is wrong to call anybody a materialist simply because
he tries to say spirit in terms of matter, as if that were a
sin. Materialism is not the attempt to say all in terms of matter.
The only materialist - be he poet, teacher, scientist, politician,
or statesman - is the man who gets lost in his material without
a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order. He is
the lost soul. (43)
- Thus through over sixty years of
writing about poetry, and through a tantalizing variety of literary
forms and styles, Robert Frost has left us a body of critical
theory that is probably larger than that of any other American
poet. It has scope and depth, wit and subtlety - and a great
sanity. In its significance, it bears favorable comparison with
the formalized criticism of Eliot or Pound, yet its dependence
on Emerson gives it a more distinctive American quality. Finally,
it should be remembered that Frost told John Freeman: "my
theory was out of my practice"; he exemplified its relevance
in the poetry he wrote.
- FROST AS
A CRITICAL THEORIST - Footnotes
- 1. Louis Untermeyer (ed.), The
Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer (New York: Holt,
Rinehart & Winston, 1963), p. 16.
2. See Frost's recognition of this in "The Craft of Poetry,"
Inter- views with Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New
York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966), p. 203.
3. Edgar Allan Poe, "The Rationale of Verse," The Complete
Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. 14. (The Monticello edition; New
York: George D. Sproul, 1902), p. 220.
4. Unpublished transcript by Amy Bonner of a lecture given by
Robert Frost at the New School for Social Research, N.Y., in
1937. (Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.)
5. Thompson, Selected Letters, p. 25.
6. Newspaper interview, quoted in Robert Newdick, "Robert
Frost and the Sound of Sense," American Literature, IX (November,
7. Sidney Cox, A Swinger of Birches (New York: New York Uni-
versity Press, 1957), p. II.
8. J. M. Synge, Preface to The Playboy of the Western World,
The Complete Works of John M. Synge (New York: Random House,
1935), p. 4.
9. Robert Frost, " A Visit in Franconia," Interviews
with Robert Frost, p. 13.
- 10. Cox, A Swinger of Birches,
11. Thompson, Selected Letters, p. 130.
- 12. Ibid., 217.
- 13. Ibid., 151.
14. The American Dramatic Society produced "The Death of
the Hired Man" and "Home Burial" in 1915; the
Breadloaf Writers Con- ference staged "Snow" in 1925.
15. Robert Frost, "Preface to A Way Out," Selected
Prose, p. 13.
- 16. Thompson, Selected Letters,
- 17. Untermeyer, Letters, p.
18. Unpublished postcard from Robert Frost to F. S. Flint, n.d.
(The Academic Center Library, University of Texas).
19. Thompson, Selected Letters, pp. 191-192.
20. See Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (New York:
Random House, 1965), Chap. I.
21. Thompson, Selected Letters, p. 128.
- 22. Ibid., 242.
- 23. Ibid., 361.
- 24. Ibid., 179.
- 25. Ibid., 465.
- 26. Ibid., 369.
- 27. Robert Frost, The Poetry
of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Holt, Rinehart
& Winston, 1969), p. 484.
28. Untermeyer, Letters, p. 14.
- 29. Ibid., 17.
30. Ibid., 230.
31. Thompson, Selected Letters, p. 344.
32. Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry," Selected Prose,
- 33. Untermeyer, Letters, p.
34. Lawrance Thompson, Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert
Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1942 ), Chap. 2.
35. Thompson, Selected Letters, p. 237.
- 36. Untermeyer, Letters, p.
37. Thompson, Selected Letters, pp. 324-325.
- 38. Ibid., 61.
39. Untermeyer, Letters, pp. 75-76.
40. Richard Poirier, "Robert Frost," Paris Review,
No.24 (Summer- Fall, 1959), p. 115.
41. Frost, "Education by Poetry," Selected Prose, p.
- 42. Ibid., 37.
- 43. Ibid., 41.
to "Frost as a Practical Critic"
- Frost compared and related to many
of his contemporaries: Eliot, Pound, Robinson,
- Matters of criticism.
to The Frost Free Library
to Robert Frost on writing - Title page