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FROST AS A PRACTICAL CRITIC

"Each poem clarifies something. But then you've got to do it again. You can't get clarified to stay so: let you not think that. In a way, it's like nothing more than blowing smoke rings. Making little poems encourages a man to see that there is shapeliness in the world. A poem is an arrest of disorder ."

Robert Frost, quoted in an interview by John Ciardi, published in the Saturday Review, March 21, 1959.

When we turn to Frost's practical criticism, our first impression is likely to be one of surprise at how low-keyed it is. There is, moreover, something curiously superficial about his literary judgments. Certainly this is due in part to the informality of his letter style, partly to certain difficulties in his personality, and very largely to the fact that he was not particularly interested in practical criticism. In looking at this aspect of Frost's literary mind, we are limited by the available evidence. Not all his letters have been published and almost none of his lectures, which would seem to be an important primary source. Any assessment, therefore, will have to change, as new material becomes public. But in the material that is at present available, Frost's criticism covers three distinct areas: judgments about his own poetry, about the poetry of his contemporaries, and about the poetry of the past.

Unfortunately there is far too little record of Frost's comments on his own poetry. His criticism here is restricted mostly to his early work, and is almost wholly concerned with technique. The same diffidence that kept him from commenting on his major contemporaries also kept him out of controversy over his own poetry. "I have written to keep the over curious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters to such as you," he wrote to Sidney Cox. (1) Or perhaps the reason for a lack of self-analysis was simply that, since a poem had been an act of clarification for him, it did not bear further clarification; he was usually sure about what he had written. There is barely restrained impatience in the tone of his letter to Leonidas W. Payne Jr ., chairman of the English Department at the University of Texas, when Payne, with misguided good will, sent Frost a list of "errors" found in his Collected Poems. There is no room for self-doubt here; he was not to be misled by standards of "school-girl English."

Most of Frost's self-criticism, probably because it deals with the early poetry, is directed at his major preoccupations at that time - sound, and tones of voice. In a conversation with Louis Mertins, he talks of the problem of diction:

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 pattern 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 cliches. 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. (2)

But this is mostly hindsight. He expresses less consciousness of words as cliches, and more concern for the relation of sound to logic in the following 1894 letter to Susan Hayes Ward about the first poem ("My Butterfly") that she accepted for The Independent:

I have not succeeded in revising the poem as you requested. That Aztec consonant syllable of mine, "l," spoils a word I am very sorry to dispense with. The only one I think of to substitute for it is "eddying" which of course weakens the impression - although I am not sure but that it merely changes it. The would-be cadence howe'er may be incorrect also, but I did not suspect it at the time. It is used in the same sense as "at any rate" would be in that case. But I cannot sustain the usage by any example I have in mind: and when once I doubt an idiom my ear hesitates to vouch for it thereafter. The line, "These were the unlearned things," is wretched. It refers directly to the two lines preceeding and indirectly to the answer inevitable to that question " And did you think etc." which answer would be, God did nevertheless! Yet the line is manifestly redundant as well as retruse and I must invent one to supplant it. (3)

This concern for the relation of sound to sense is even more evident in his criticism of slightly later poems, which more directly embody his theories of intonation. His analysis of the value of " A Patch of Snow," for example, is based on the dual criteria of "certain points of recognition" and "the very special tone." And one of his fullest criticisms of his own poetry, in his own critical terms, occurs in an unpublished lecture that he gave to the Browne and Nichols School in 1915; his "terms" are wholly those of intonation:

...the Sound in the mouths of men I found to be the basis of all effective expression, - not merely words or phrases, but sentences, - living things flying round, -the vital parts of speech. And my poems are to be read in the appreciative tones of this live speech. For example, there are five tones in this first stanza,


  
"The Pasture" 

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;                   (light, informing tone) 
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away                           ("only" tone - reservation ) 
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may) :                (supplementary, possibility) 
I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too.                           (free tone, assuring) 
                                                                                                ( afterthought, inviting ) 

I'm going out to fetch the little calf                               (similar, free, persuasive, assur- 
That's standing by the mother. It's so young,              ing, and inviting tones in second stanza) 
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.  
I sha'n't be gone long.  - You come too.

Yet if intonation is the chief criterion in Frost's self-criticism, it rests on a thorough knowledge of metrics. In a letter to John Erskine, he reads lines in terms of their meter, and admits to having a "sophisticated ear." There is, moreover, a critical judgment at work in the very ordering of the poems in A Boy's Will, and especially in the rubrics that accompanied the poems in the first edition. There is an element of self-parody, of irony, of critical objectivity, and an awareness of over-all structure in this random selection from the original table of contents:

 
INTO MY OWN The youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having forsworn the world.
MY NOVEMBER GUEST He is in love with being misunderstood.
IN NEGLECT He is scornful of folk his scorn cannot reach.
MOWING He takes up life simply with the small tasks.
REVELATION He resolves to become intelligible, at least to himself, since there's no help else.
NOW CLOSE THE WINDOWS It is time to make an end of speaking.
MY BUTTERFLY There are things that can never be the same.

The rubrics in fact shift the "voice" in each poem from that of adolescent romanticism close to that of the ironic monologues of the early Eliot. It seems a pity they were removed from later editions, though they are restored in the notes of the 1969 edition by Edward Connery Lathem. Perhaps Frost thought they were too obvious, or perhaps he came to think that the "voice" had to validate itself from within the poem.

On the whole, although Frost's judgments about his own poetry were very sure, he rarely indulged in self-justification. About "The Road Not Taken," for example, which he knew was being misread by most readers, he remained enigmatically noncommital. Commenting on the preference of Maine publisher Thomas Mosher for "Reluctance," Frost notes: "Nevertheless the book contains a dozen poems that are at least good in the same kind and for the same reason. In Mowing, for instance, I come so near what I long to get that I almost despair of coming nearer." (4) "Mowing" is indeed the one poem in A Boy's Will that stands out as something stronger than a Romantic lyric, and that prefigures the best of Frost's poetry; one would love to hear him analyze what it was he came so close to "getting," as Poe analyzed the composition of "The Raven." But Frost gives little away.

The bulk of his criticism is directed rather toward his contemporaries, and the criteria he employs here are only slightly broader than those involved in his self-criticism. Again, although the time span is larger, his primary emphasis is on technique and craftsmanship. His praise goes to any demonstration of technical mastery, as in his comment on Mark Van Doren's "Winter Diary": "I believe I saw how you got every turn of phrase and word-shift in it. I delighted in the way you took your rhymes." (5) His praise goes also to any work that illustrates his own theories, as the "speaking tones" do in Edwin Arlington Robinson's The Porcupine. His condemnation goes to anything that runs counter to his practical knowledge of the way poetry works. Thus he is skeptical of Bridges' syllabic theory of metrics. In a marginal comment beside a poem of Bridges' in the 1913 issue of Poetry and Drama, Frost writes:

Yet even here Frost has enough tolerance to admit: "Mind you he has done good things." He is more scathing toward sheer incompetence. Note his emphasis on structure, as well as on "recognition," in this comment on Wilfred Gibson's "Solway Ford":

Although the tone of a letter Frost wrote to Harold Monro about Monro's poetry is jocular and tactful, he plainly cannot bring himself to accept exaggerated diction: "You turn life rather too terrible by the use of such words over a cat drinking milk as 'creeping lust,' 'transfigured with love,' 'dim ecstasy,' 'her world is an infinite shapeless white,' 'holy drop,' and 'lies defeated.' " (8)

Gibson and Monro were friends of Frost. The tone is less tactful and the attack on technical incompetence more direct and specific in his letters on Clement Wood and James Agee. Frost insists on traditional grammar and logic in his criticism of Agee's poem. Delicacy of tone could never cover up sloppiness in thinking; form must lead to clarification, or it belies itself.

This emphasis on technique as a critical yardstick has firmness and practicality, but it excludes a great deal. Predating the New Criticism, it has some of the limitations of that approach. On the whole, it pays too little attention to the psychological and moral values that go in