The Poetics of Robert Frost - Examples
 
Sound Devices
 
Assonance Nothing Gold Can Stay Stopping by Woods  Ghost House The Black Cottage  The Silken Tent
Consonance Nothing Gold Can Stay  Mowing Tree at my Window Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter The Vantage Point
Alliteration Nothing Gold Can Stay Stopping by Woods Storm Fear   Mending Wall  The Silken Tent
Rhyme Nothing Gold Can Stay Stopping by Woods The Tuft of Flowers  Devotion  The Runaway
The Sound
of Sense
A Patch of
Old Snow
 The Runaway  Spring Pools  Home Burial  Storm Fear
 Tune Acquainted with the Night  Provide, Provide  Design  Birches  
 
Sound Devices
 
Sound devices, also known as "musical devices" make poetry a special art form. Frost called his poems "talk-song" as a means of conveying his slant on the musical qualities of poetry. The 19th C. Romantics, especially Poe, Coleridge and Swinburne carried musical delight in their poetics to an extreme. Frost deplored this along with the lush exuberance of nineteenth century poetry. Frost coined the idea of "the sound of sense" turning back to Wordsworth and Emerson as models even while creating his own special style. Frost used everyday speech rhythms and plain language to make poetry. Nevertheless, his poems are full of traditional sound devices that enrich his poetry. As far as Frost was concerned, music did not mix with poetry. One thing he deplored was setting his poems to music. Poems are made and meant to be spoken.
 
It is not difficult to find alliteration, assonance and consonance in almost any Frost poem. We present examples only as a means to show you how to find them. The use of these devices is part of the craftsmanship of poetry - this is what makes language sound beautiful. Frost was a master of sound. He said, "The sound is the gold in the ore."
 
In a taped discussion with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren entitled "Conversations on the Craft of Poetry," (1959) Frost made an interesting statement: "One of the things that I notice with myself is that I can't make certain word sounds go together, sometimes they won't 'say.' This has got something to do with the way one vowel runs into another, the way one syllable runs into another. And then I never know -- I don't like to reason about that too much. I don't understand it, but I've changed lines because there was something about them that my ear refused. And I suppose it has something to do with vowels and consonants.... I don't want any science of it." See further comments on Frost's use of assonance (click)
 
As with all poetic devices Frost used, he did not sit and plan them out. He instinctively knew how he wanted his poems to sound. As a result of his excellent intuition, these things are there for us to find. Frost enjoyed writing rhymed poetry, but he also wrote blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Almost every poem written by Frost is highly metrical. See Meter
 
Assonance The relatively close juxtaposition of the same or similar vowel sounds, but with different end consonants in a line or passage, thus a vowel rhyme, as in the words, "same day." Assonance does not occur simply by having the same vowel spelling, eg. lost and most. Say the words outloud. Tip: Assonance begins with a vowel and it governs vowels. (Go back to table)
 
Examples:
Nothing Gold Can Stay: only so; ... Note: the words "nothing gold" is not assonance. Nothing is pronounced "nuth-ing" and gold is pronounced gold/old, that is with a long o. The same applies to "can stay."
Stopping by Woods: ... the sweep / Of easy wind ... (long e's)
Ghost House: black bats (a's) (alliteration and assonance)
The Black Cottage: should sugar in the natal dew. (L 122) (alliteration and assonance)
The Silken Tent: sunny summer (alliteration and assonance)
See further comments on Frost's use of assonance (click)
 
Consonance The repetition of the same consonant sounds at the end of stressed syllables, but with different vowel sounds, within or at the end of a line, such as "bad and sod", (d's) or "when furnaces burn", (n's). Tip: Consonance begins with a consonant and it governs consonants.
 
Examples:
Nothing Gold Can Stay: dawn goes down (n's) (alliteration and consonance)
Mowing: sound beside the wood (d's);
Tree at my Window: could be profound (d's); Mine with inner (n's) Note: here the stressed consonant sound (n) is inside the word. Although the vowel is the same as spelled, it is a different sound. The rule applies.
Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter: died of cold (d's), thought....alight, sweet and swift (t's) and more
The Vantage Point: : slope where the cattle keep, (p's);
 
Alliteration The repetition of the initial sounds (usually consonants) of stressed syllables in neighboring words or at short intervals within a line or passage, usually at word beginnings, as in "Jesse Jackson," who by the way, uses alliteration almost to excess. He is a very powerful orator who understands the use of all these sound devices. Again, alliteration depends on sound, not spelling, thus chime and cease are NOT alliterative. Used effectively, alliteration should create a connection or contrast between ideas.
 
Examples:
Nothing Gold Can Stay: Green is gold (g's) ; Her hardest hue to hold (h's) ; dawn goes down to day (d's)
Stopping by Woods: the only other sound's the sweep (o's and s's)
Storm Fear: When the wind whispers (w's) (alliteration and assonance) , the cold creeps (c's)
Mending Wall: old-stone savage
The Silken Tent: sunny summer (alliteration and assonance)
 
Rhyme The repetition of the accented vowel sound and all succeeding sounds, as in old - cold, make - wake, feign - rain. (table)
 
What is important in Rhyme is the pattern of rhymes and the pairing of them against the meaning. Frost delights in pairing words that rhyme in an uncommon context and that have not been commonly used in poetry. He wouldn't waste his time rhyming life/wife. His rhymes still surprise the reader for both their sound quality and their associations. Frost used many variations of rhyme patterns. His most brilliant is "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," in which he rhymes 3 out of the 4 lines in each stanza and then interlocks the unrhymed word as the primary rhyme in the next stanza. In spite of this technical mastery, the poem is very fluid and effortless. You will almost never see a forced rhyme in Frost's poetry.
 
Rhymes are diagramed to show the pattern, such as aaba which describes the first stanza of Stopping by Woods: know - though- here - snow. Certain verse forms have prescribed rhyme patterns such as sonnets. Again, Frost followed the rules and broke the rules. He showed his technical ability but took freedom with his materials.
 
Frost liked using couplets - two lines of rhyming verse. He believed they were symbolic of life, of things having two aspects of reality: good and bad, light and dark, etc. He often used the form of Heroic Couplets - a poem consisting of a series of couplets with the thought complete in each of the two lines (usually ended by punctuation)
 
Rhymes are said to be masculine and feminine depending on where the accent falls, thus
Masculine endings:
snow having only 1 syllable is accented making it masculine
be-low is accented on the last syllable making it masculine
 
Feminine ending:
sea-son is accented on the second to last syllable making it feminine
 
To rhyme a word like sea-son you need a word like reason, or treason. Frost made whole poems with rhyme patterns of alternating feminine and masculine endings, as in "Reluctance." Note how he indents to set off the endings: (table)
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?
 
The extra syllable at the end of the feminine ending is considered "extra-metrical" and is not counted for metric purposes. Thus the above stanza is written in trimeter - 3 accents per line. The feminine ending creates a particular sound when used as a pattern.
 
Examples:
Nothing Gold Can Stay: gold/hold, flower/hour etc - poem written in couplets
Stopping by Woods: See above - interlocking rhyme
The Tuft of Flowers: written in Heroic Couplets - see above
Devotion: two couplets written with feminine endings
The Runaway: The rhyming scheme of this poem is always noted in essays
                    There are 6 lines :  aba cbc  (fall-colt-wall   head-bolt-fled)  (note: colt-bolt)
                              then 7 lines :  abc c abc
                              then 8 lines :  aa b cc b dd
(table)
 
The Sound of Sense This is a term coined by Frost and most importantly governs his theory of sound. Frost best explained the concept in two letters he wrote when his first books of poetry were published, one written to his friend John Bartlett on July 4, 1913 and the other to Sidney Cox on January 19, 1914. (Worth reading in full, Selected Letters) Here are some excerpts: ..the sound of sense is "the abstract vitality of our speech." "The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words." Sounds.."are summoned by the audile imagination and they must be positive, strong and definitely and unmistakenly indicated by the context." (sense). We get "cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the meter." Frost's use of the sound of sense leads to his special interpretation of tone. Still seems confusing, doesn't it. William Pritchard explains this idea very well in his book, "Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered" pages 78-100.
 
My best attempt to explain it is that Frost writes in such a way that he makes you say the poem a certain way. If you would have 3 people prepare to read a poem, and bring them in one by one to recite it, you would find they all say it the same way, providing they spent the time to prepare it. The meaning and intonation emanates from within. See: Tone. Here are some examples:
 
Examples:
A Patch of Old Snow: the last line "If I ever read it." That last line is inevitably tossed off quizically with the voice lowered. That tone leads the reader to the extended analogy that the news may be as temporal as a patch of snow.
The Runaway: "Sakes, it's only weather" sakes is heavily accented, followed by ON-ly and it's tone is gentle disdain. The last lines "Whoever it is that leaves him out so late / When other creatures have gone to stall and bin / Ought to be told to come and take him in." Frost said he wrote those lines for the aggreived tone of voice.
Spring Pools: "Let them think twice" a tone of gentle admonishing. The voice lifts and the finger wags a bit.
Home Burial: "Don't, don't, don't, don't," she cried. "I'm not, I'm not." "If -- you -- do!" All those emotions come through the words - the terror, fear, anger, denial, and anger again. The voice inevitably builds those emotions into the words. There is no way to read Home Burial in a flat voice.
Storm Fear: Come Out! Come Out! -- The word "out" shouts a mighty challenge. The sound is fed by the meaning and context of the poem. The voice imediately drops, "It costs no inward struggle not to go./ Ah, No!" - the no comes back emphatically.
 
Tune Frost often invited his readers to listen for the tune. This is one of those enigmatic terms he used on the podium. Frost explained that there is a metric beat and a rhythm beat, but the tune is the third thing. Frost strongly disagreed with the notion that poetry should be musical, but he did believe that poetry had it's own tune, which may be the closest thing he ever acknowledged. He once demonstrated how to count the 5 beats (of iambic pentameter) with your fingers and then play the tune on top of that. See the example in "Birches" below.
 
Frost wrote, "All that can be done with words is soon told. So also with meters - particularly in our language where there are virtually but two, strict and loose iambic ...The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless." This is what makes Frost's poetry memorable.
 
Examples:
Acquainted with the Night: after reading it, Frost said, "All for the tune. Tune is everything." On another occasion, "Listen for the tune."
Provide, Provide: after reading it Frost said, " There's plenty of tune to that."
Design: Frost said, "That one hasn't any tune at all."
Birches: "It's when I'm weary of considerations." This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending. ( it's WHEN i'm WEAR - y OF con - SID - er - A (tions). There are 5 metrical beats on the line. The tune of the line impels extra stress on the word weary. The meaning and context make you say the line in a "tune" over the meter.
 
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