Frost's Style

Of all his poetic elements, Frost's style seems the hardest to pin down. Actually one cannot pin it down, but something could be said to further our un-enlightenment. Let's begin with what Frost said about style in a letter to his friend Louis Untermeyer dated March 10, 1924

Dear Old Louis:

Since last I saw you I have come to the conclusion that style in prose or verse is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. Let the sound of Stevenson go through your mind empty and you will realize that he never took himself other than as an amusement. Do the same with Swinburne and you will see that he took himself as a wonder. Many sensitive natures have plainly shown by their style that they took themselves lightly in self-defense. They are the ironists. Some fair to good writers have no style and so leave us ignorant of how they take themselves. But that is the one important thing to know: because on it depends our likes and dislikes. A novelist seems to be the only kind of writer who can make a name without a style: which is only one more reason for not bothering with the novel. I am not satisfied to let it go with the aphorism that the style is the man. The man's ideas would be some element then of his style. So would his deeds. But I would narrow the definition. His deeds are his deeds; his ideas are his ideas. His style is the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds. Mind you if he is down-spirited it will be all he can do to have the ideas without the carriage. The style is out of his superfluity. It is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward. Emerson had one of the noblest least egotistical of styles. By comparison with it Thoreau's was conceited, Whitman's bumptious. Carlyle's way of taking himself simply infuriates me. Longfellow took himself with the gentlest twinkle.

Now that Frost explained it, do we understand his style? Well...no! Here's another excerpt from
Frost's lecture before the Winter Institute of Literature at the University of Miami, in 1935. The talk was entitled "Before the Beginning and After the End of a Poem":

Frost said, "In the creative act, a certain impulse or state of mind
precedes the writing of the poem. Next comes what Stevenson called 'a
visitation of style', a power to find words which will somehow convey the
impulse."

Certainly an essential element of Frost's style is his choice of words or diction. He uses everyday words you would use in conversation. Frost writes his sentences with meter and rhythm to enhance their beauty. He also uses many poetic devices adding to the craftsmanship of the poem.

In 1931, Isidor Schneider called Frost's style "gnomic." William Rose Benet said, "Frost is no transcendentalist." Cleanth Brooks wrote Frost's character or poetic mask may be described as "the sensitive New Englander, possessed of a natural wisdom; dry and laconic when serious; genial and whimsical when not; a character who is uneasy with hyperbole and prefers to use understatement to risking possible overstatement." Possibly, Brooks explains best in Frost's own criteria: "style is the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds."

Let's try to identify another poet's style. T. S. Eliot can certainly be termed a disillusioned urban aristocrat. Emily Dickinson, a introspective soul, a house hermit, perhaps a bit mad, and terribly connected to an inner world. Does this fit? "Style is the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds." Ernest Hemingway's style was that of the adventurer, soldier of fortune.

We know what "style" means in terms of one's dress. Style embellishes one's persona and signals the observer what to expect - what is in character. A poet's style can be like that too. Frost said, "It is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward." You have to think of that carefully - the mind making figure eights, spins and displays, showing off prowess.

Frost is the rural Yankee who writes about everyday experiences - his own experiences, but he was one who saw metaphorical extensions in the everyday things he encountered. The experiences are his subject matter along with the rural setting of New England nature, seasons, weather and times of day. This raw material accounts for one of the enduring qualities of his poems because these things are timeless - they are still in our consciousness - still a part of our lives. Regardless of subject and setting, Frost's metaphorical extensions and his mastery of form are his true genius.

Frost believed that the subjects of poetry should be "common in experience," that it should speak of familiar things everyone recognizes, BUT "uncommon in expression."

"All the fun's in how you say a thing."

Poetry should not try to tell us something we don't know, to reform us, or even teach us. To Frost, the poem should cover familiar ground, but say it in an unfamiliar way. If the poet succeeds, "the poem will keep its freshness like a metal keeps its fragrance."


Letter from Robert Frost (edited) to Louis Untermeyer, dated March 10, 1924 from SELECTED LETTERS OF ROBERT FROST edited by Lawrance Thompson., Henry Holt and Co., 1964. Used by permission of the Trustee of the Estate of Robert Frost and Henry Holt and Co.