Development in theBooks of Poetry and in Complete Poems

Just as we have seen the organic within the poet and the poem, so there is an organic development in Complete Poems (1949). There is a seemingly large, free, loose, speculative atmosphere in Complete Poems. Yet on closer inspection an apparent casualness in details reflects subtle variations in the master idea. Frost has not consciously written on fixed ideas or attitudes. He has written as the mood inspirited him, and so we find several basic ideas and attitudes of which the poems are variations or extensions with which they have affinities. Ramifying in Complete Poems is a network of interrelationships but not necessarily in intellectual progression. The impression made upon the reader is of linear dimension and not mass effect. The linear dimension is seen in the extension of an idea, and its recurrence and variation in a later poem. This is natural to Frost who is a ruminative rather than a systematic poet. Symmetry in his poetry comes from the development of these ideas during a lifetime of experience. It is a natural symmetry and not a built-in one. It works according to the principle of its own nature like crystals forming.

The organic is a matter of fluctuations and foliations, fits and starts, progressions and regressions. The organic unfolding in Complete Poems reflects Frost's personal discoveries and intimate revelations. "Every poem," he says, "is like a straight line drawn across a piece of paper and under the sheet is a fifty-cent piece. And as you go back and forward, back and forward, you see an American eagle, and the figure comes out." In the poetry the figure that comes out is the figure a poet's life makes unconsciously; it is what he releases to significance of himself. "It all brings out something. It's more than saying," he comments. Just as there is something discovered through the poem, so, too, there is something of the poet brought out in the complete poems, lines of meaning, a design, a pattern. The figure the poet makes is like the eagle on the coin under the paper.

The organic operates in two ways: in the effort of the poet to express himself and in the effect experience has upon him. There is, for example, an organic relationship between "Directive" in Steeple Bush (1947) and "Into My Own" in A Boy's Will (1913). The poet who, in "Into My Own," struck out independently for himself, is, in "Directive," positive in a different way. "Directive" tells us about the adventure of the spirit which he began when he wrote "Into My Own." From an egocentric, subjective view he has moved to a sociocentric, objective one. No longer a Melvilleian "Isolato," he is now "a piece of mankind." "Into My Own" points to the future; "Directive" addresses the present. "Directive" is reflective and searching; "Into My Own" is assertive and perceptive. The point of drive in the former is salvation; in the latter it is self-justification. The movement in Complete Poems is a slow ascending one and "Directive" is an apex of ascent. Frost's progression is from subjective self-defensive assertion ("Into My Own") to objectivity in North of Boston (1914) and Mountain Interval (1916). From the latter to a sensitive musing on natural beauty in New Hampshire (1923) and meditation in West-Running Brook (1928). And then an increasingly marked interest in and contemplation of the topical in A Further Range (1936) and A Witness Tree (1942). Finally, the long look in the two Masques (1945-47), and a balancing of extremes - science and religion - in Steeple Bush (1947).

Moreover, the early dialogues show a dramatic involvement in the plight of particular individuals; the later longer poems, like "The Lesson for Today," "The Literate Farmer," "Build Soil," and "How Hard It Is to Keep from Being King" are more concerned with general ideas. There is a modest touch of humor in A Boy's Will (1913), where the poems are usually grave and earnest, but in A Witness Tree (1942) and Steeple Bush (1947) the laughter is both satirical and mocking. One of the most interesting organic changes is the development of the shy, tentative inquisitor in "Reluctance" ("The heart is still aching to seek,/ But the feet question 'whither ?' ") to the sagacious counsellor ("Don't join too many gangs. Join few if any./ Join the United States and join the family-/ But not much in between unless a college.") in "Build Soil." It is a rare virtue when the poetry has grown more rugged and wise without sacrificing its tenderness and lyrical quality.

A distinguishing characteristic in the organic process is change, and a poet not only registers the impression experience makes upon him, he also exerts an effect upon it.
"Life," says Santayana, "is an equilibrium which is maintained now by accepting modification and now by imposing it." Frost reflects this equilibrium in two ways - by inheriting the conditions of his craft and renewing them through the restatement of human values in imaginative terms and by presenting at different times varying aspects of a similar idea. In illustration, consider "The Tuft of Flowers" and its often-quoted lines, "Men work together," I told him from the heart/ "Whether they work together or apart," and compare these lines with his reference to "Men work alone, their lots plowed far apart" in "The Strong Are Saying Nothing." Experience which inclined him toward fellow feeling in the early poem modified the view in the later poem. But I would not unduly press the point. Here is no antithesis of the social man and the solitary. This is simply an awareness of varying points of vantage.

Another distinguishing characteristic, reflecting the organic in Frost's poetry, is the freedom he has of his subject matter. He is not cornered in a private world. Back country decadence, nature, love, tragedy, the humorous aspects as well as the tragic, are not dead ends about which he writes with a certain descriptive skill. They are only his material - aspects natural to him - and they form the background for the poems. For instance, take the nature poems. Frost is not trying to make nature addicts of us. Nature is his subject matter, and the content in the nature poems is the product of the natural background and the poet interacting at a point of intensity. No more a propagandist in the nature lyrics than in the dramatic monologues and dialogues, he is chiefly concerned with reacting to the world of reality as it appears to him. Stars, the dark woods, earth, woodland springs or flighting birds are tokens for cryptic analogies and poetic parables and sportive riddles. In their allusiveness inheres the poetry, a poetry that is saturated with the weather of the poet's mind. Frost is - simply and importantly - one for whom things have happened, for whom experience carries a charge; one who hoped to light fuses that would detonate charges in other people's minds. His poetry reflects the freedom he has had in his materials, developing this or that aspect a little further when the mood moves him.

It is a very human poetry about people as well as things; about children as well as older people; about love as well as loneliness; about machines as well as wagons; about heaven as well as earth. It has range as in Whitman and ideas as in Emerson. The center of his art is not single sight or double vision. It is now single sight as in "Lost in Heaven," now double vision as in " A Lone Striker ." The ideas and attitudes are there and the poems embody their variation.

end of excerpt

from: The Dimensions of Robert Frost by Reginald Cook p81-4

Back to Tutorial